In our recent visit to England, more specifically Shrewsbury, we stayed in a city once ruled by my 28th great grandfather, Roger de Montgomery, First Earl of Shrewsbury. Born in 1022 in Saint Germain de Montgomery, Calvados, France, he was a confidant of and advisor to William the Conqueror in 1066.  He was a top commander of William’s military force. While Roger was a major player in armed conflicts his toughest opponent and most insane battles were probably with his own wife, Mabel de Talvas, (b. 1026 • Orne, Basse-Normandie, France). I say that with good reason. Read on!

His father, Roger de Montgomery, seigneur of Montgomery, controlled beaucoup acres in the valley of the Dives in central Normandy (France). Junior was the third but eldest surviving son of Roger de Montgomery and thus inherited his father’s estate. Roger Jr’s role in the Norman invasion of England is subject to debate. In either case he was clearly important to the Conqueror and an integral part of the hostile takeover. Wace’s, Roman de Rou, depicts Roger as the commander of the right flank of the Norman army in the Battle at Hastings, returning to Normandy with the victorious King William in 1067.[1]. Excerpts of Wace’s account of the Battle of Hastings can be found online and Wace clearly depicts Roger in a tight relationship with William the Conqueror. How in the heck Wace can claim to quote long passages from the conversations of William and Roger on the battlefield, I do not know. But, their English was apparently impeccable and rather Shakespearian in nature, long before there ever was a Shakespeare.

Other more recent authors believe Roger was directed to stay behind in 1066 and remain in Normandy as the provisional leader of the kingdom in the absence of the Conqueror. He was to ride herd on any local insurrections and challenges to William’s throne.  For his service and loyalty to William, Roger was entrusted with land in two places critical for the defense of England:  Arundel and Shrewsbury. The Shropshire territories stood between Wales and England. The territory, home to the Marcher Lords, was rife with constant warfare. Raping, pillaging and murder were a common source of entertainment and mayhem was the norm. Few places in Europe were littered with more hilltop forts, fortresses and castles than the Welsh border with England. See a map of Border castles.

Iron Age (1200 b.c – 700 a.d.) fortresses like Ffridd Faldwyn stand near the Montgomery Castle (1072 a.d.), in Montgomeryshire, Wales, just to the west of Shrewsbury. Montgomery Castle is one of the finest examples of the motte and bailey castles, surviving for one thousand years. It was built by Roger in his effort to secure the border. He then took things a step further and invaded Wales.

Prior to the Norman invasion the 8th Century Saxons, under the command of Offa, constructed a 150 mile long dyke intended to mark a border that Saxons and Welsh were expected to respect. “Cross the line and you are dead meat!” seemed to be the mantra of the day. Or as one Welsh ruler shouted across the distance to a Saxon lord: “Your ass will be my haggis if you cross this wall.”

To say that William the Conqueror rewarded Roger is an understatement. It is a bit like saying Bill Gates has a nice nest egg at his disposal. Roger was one of the five most wealthy men in England during William the Conqueror’s reign. His possessions included the county of West Sussex (Arundel and Chichester) [2],  83 manors in Sussex, seven-eighths of Shropshire, 30 manors in Staffordshire, 11 manors in Warwickshire, 9 manors in Hampshire, 8 manors in Middlesex, 8 manors in Cambridgeshire, 4 manors in Surrey, 3 manors in Wiltshire, 2 manors in Worcestershire, and 1 manor in Gloucestershire [3]. These shires are scattered about England, and Sussex itself, hugs the English Channel to the south. The income from Roger’s estates amounted to an equivalent of £2000 per year in 1086 at a time when the landed wealth for England was reported as £72,000 in the Domesday Book. Roger’s wealth was roughly 3% of the nation’s GDP.[4] He was set for life. There was however, the matter of his wife’s disposition and William’s propensity for shifting deeds from one crony to another.

Roger’s wife, Mabel de Belleme (aka Mabel de Talvas), the daughter of Guillaume II Talvas Compte de Balleme and Hildeberge de Beaumont was reportedly obnoxious, overbearing, ruthless and power hungry, not a pleasant Bridge partner.  One author describes her as

“an exceedingly cruel woman. While not very large in stature, she made up for it in bold schemes and pure wickedness.  In an attempt to poison the son of a man responsible for blinding and mutilating her equally cruel father, she managed to kill her husband’s youngest brother, Gilbert, instead.”

That caused Roger to think twice about irritating his wife.

She was known to exercise a considerable amount of power in her native Normandy.  Her antics caused many of her husband’s best buddies to lose their possessions and end up flat broke. It was her malice toward one family in particular that brought about her brutal demise. Using her authority she denied the Bunel brothers access to their father’s fortune at his death.  Rulers could exercise such power over the lands in their domain.  Hugh Bunel and his brothers got their revenge and gave us a very shocking end to Mabel’s life. In December of 1077, they mounted their horses, rode into her castle of Bures-sur-Dive and cut off her head as she rested in bed after a bath. .[6][7].  Roger rebounded from the loss of his wife and married Adelaide du Puiset. By all reports he gained some semblance of serenity in his ‘declining years. It is not reported that he sought revenge or even justice in the matter of the Bunel attack on Mabel. Roger was conveniently away on business, living in Shrewsbury, at the time of the attack in France.

Roger de Montgomery was a devoted Catholic and his contributions to the church and abbey in Shrewsbury were generous and numerous. Mabel on the other hand was a painful experience for any member of the clergy regardless of their stature.  She would purposefully visit her husband’s favorite abbey in Shrewsbury, with an entourage large enough to drain their limited resources. The abbot told her if she did not mend her ways, she would suffer great pains, which evidently happened as she left quickly that evening and never returned. It has been suggested by some that the kitchen staff served a meal that wrenched on the gut of the wench and caused her to wretch. Say that three times, fast, with your hand pressed firmly against your gut.

Roger and Mabel married in 1048 in Perche, France. The marriage bound together two of the larger land holdings in all of Normandy. The marriage did more than bind wealth together and the evidence for that is found in the fact that Roger and Mabel had the following children:

* Robert de Belleme, Count of Alencon and 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury
* Hugh de Montgomery, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury
* Roger, Vicomte d’Heimois
* Philip of Montgomery
* Arnulf of Montgomery
* Sibyl, wife of Roger FitzHamon, Lord of Cruelly
* Emma, Abbess of Almencheches
* Matilda, wife of Robert, Count of Mortain
* Mabel, wife of Hugh de Chateauneuf
* Roger, died young

Of these ten children my family is descended from Arnulf. I much prefer Arnulf to his brother Robert. The eldest son, Robert de Belleme, is said to have inherited his mother’s tendencies for savagery and cruelty. But further research revealed that Arnulf was despised by the Irish whose villages he conquered and ruled through fear and loathing.  He was so despised that his own father in law poisoned him at a Welcome Home Arnulf feast. Arnulf never woke the next morning.

Roger de Montgomery’s life was far from ordinary and anything but simple. He was caught up in the drama of life at the side of William the Conqueror. He was instrumental in bringing about peace between King William the Conqueror and Fulk of Anjou. The Fulk was a half brother to William Rufus and had his heart set on ruling Normandy.  Roger also helped reconcile William and William’s son, Robert Curthose, whose rebellions against his father the king began when he, Robert, was a teenager. Robert was the runt of William’s litter and took the usual abuse handed down by siblings. Robert was incensed when his brothers dumped the family chamber pot (poop pan) on his head. When his father failed to discipline the older boys for their mischief, Robert turned against his family and went so far as to flee the home, seeking refuge with uncles and fomenting insurrection among those who could benefit from the demise of King William. Roger Montgomery was able to bring the two men, William the Conqueror and Robert Curthose, together for a short time.

After King William’s death in 1088 Roger and his sons rebelled against the rule of  William Rufus, in support of Robert Curthose. Roger actually had a legitimate claim to the throne.  His position in the royal family of William the Conqueror is noted in this chart.


roger treeTo the right of Roger de Montgomery you will find the name of William Fitz Osbern. It is believed, but not yet proven, that the Osbun/Osburne line in my wife’s Sullivan family tree links back to this Osbern.

As the war for control of the throne played itself out Roger could see that William Rufus would eventually win.  Roger deserted Curthose and gave his considerable support to William Rufus.  Roger had jumped ship just in time, but not without consequence. Curthose held Roger’s sons hostage and prepared to attack Montgomery’s castle at Belleme.   Roger eventually negotiated the safe return of his sons. William Rufus won his war with his brother Curthose and imprisoned him for life. He stripped rebels like Odo of Bayeux, Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, Robert de Mowbray, Geoffrey de Montbray, and Robert de Mortain of their properties and entitlements. Several of these names including Robert de Mowbray are found in the family tree. de Mowbray is a 24th ggf.

Roger built Montgomery Castle, 15 miles to the west of Ludlow, Shropshire,  in 1086 and led an invasion into Wales after the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr in 1093. Tewdwr,  the ruler of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, is also found in our family tree as a ggf. Roger also built castles at Cardigan and Pembroke, making clear his intent to keep Deheubarth under his control once he defeated the Welsh armies. Illness got the better of our great grandfather in 1094 and he developed the notion that his days were numbered. He entered the monastery at St Peter and St Paul Abbey in Shrewsbury where he begged forgiveness, thought divine thoughts and followed holy orders in fear of his death. He died three days later, on July 27, 1094. He was buried at the abbey he had founded; the same abbey that failed to poison his wife in previous years!

At Roger’s death, his son Robert inherited Normandy, Hugh received English estates and the title of Earl of Shrewsbury. Hugh soon died of a fatal arrow in the eye slit of his armour during an attack against King Magnus of Norway. It was a shot fired by the King himself that brought Hugh to death’s door. The entire family estate then fell to his brother, Robert de Belleme. It is interesting to note that one thousand years later the Montgomery family still made heavy use of the first names, Roger, Robert, William and Hugh when naming their sons.

Roger de Montgomery also found himself at odds with my wife’s ancestors in the hills and vales of Wales and Shropshire. As William the Conqueror’s need to defend his turf grew and his number of enemies increased, he found it necessary to subdivide the properties he had initially portioned out to his Norman mafia. Around about 1086 he took some of Roger’s Sussex land and formed a fifedom for William de Braose, with its center at William’s castle of Bramber.  The Braose family Bramber Castle was located in Sussex on the English Channel. William “the Ogre” is Nancy’s 26th Great Grandfather.

The Ogre’s grandson, William de Braose (24th ggf), lost his life at the hands of our Grandfather Llywelyn (the Great) ap Iorwerth (1173-1240). Llywelyn is my son’s 24th ggf on both sides of his mother’s family. His grandmother and grandfather each descend from the iconic Welsh hero. His grandfather by way of Robert the Bruce. His grandmother by way of King John I (Lackland), father of Llywelyn’s wife, Joan. Lackland is my wife’s 20th great grandfather. Llywelyn the Great is up there on a pedestal with Scotland’s William Wallace and Robert Bruce. He stood toe to toe against the English kings and beat them at their own game.

William de Barose made his fatal mistake while staying at the home of his friend’s (Llywelyn’s) castle. The Good Welsh prince returned a little earlier than expected from a round of mayhem and bloodshed, only to find his wife (King John’s daughter, Joan) in bed with de Barose.  Fornication with the King of England’s daughter was a federal crime and William paid the price. He was executed in such a way that it sent a message. I will skip the details. Suffice it to say he was never quite the same again.  Jane was confined to prison within Llywelyn’s castle for one year and then forgiven.  We visited one of Llywelyn’s home at Caernarfon Castle in the north of Wales. It is a majestic fortification and a favorite spot for travelers who enjoy a view of the sea. It is kind of cool thinking that you had a great grandparent who chilled out in the confines of such a man cave. While my Smiths are not descended from this Welsh warrior I was able to convince my son, wife and mother in law that it was cool to be standing in a house they once owned! LOL. Betty wants the keys to the front door.

A guy named William de Warenne was also given some of Roger Montgomery’s land to the east in Sussex. I mentioned Chichester earlier in this dung heap of history and I should point out there was no castle positioned there until 1142, when Nancy’s great grandfather King Henry I (Nancy’s 23rd ggf) built a fortress on what had been Montgomery property.  Roger’s son, Robert de Belleme, forfeited his claims to any and all estates in 1102 when he wound up on the wrong side of insurrection. Belleme would be a great uncle of mine if I hadn’t disowned him. I will tell you why later.

William de Warrene is Nancy’s 24th great grandfather and he was married to a more important figure in English history, Lady Maud (Matilda) Marshall (24 ggm) (1192-1248). Maud’s father, William Marshall of Pembroke (1146-1219), Nancy’s 25th ggf, served five English kings – The “Young King” Henry, Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III. He was knighted in 1166, and spent his younger years as a knight errant and a successful tournament fighter; Stephen Langton eulogized him as the “best knight that ever lived.” [5] For more about William Marshall check this article out. Grandchildren of William Marshall include Robert Bruce I, Humphrey de Bohun, Gilbert de Lacy and the infamous Roger Mortimer. The equally infamous Simon de Montfort shares a bed with William Marshall’s wife. All of these people occupy a place in my wife’s family tree. I think my ancestors, other than Roger Montgomery’s line, might have been shearing sheep in Wiltshire and moving rock in Ireland to prepare a small family garden.

The death of King Henry I plunged England into twenty years of turmoil. The Brits refer to the time period as the Years of The Anarchy. Much of the original Montgomery estate surrendered by Belleme was acquired by William de Aubigny (1109-1176) (Nancy’s 24th ggf) upon his marriage to Adelize, widow of King Henry I.  William de Aubigny garnered the titles Earl of Arundel,Chichester and Sussex in 1156, when Henry II rewarded him for his loyalty during The Anarchy. Barons like William enabled Henry’s ascendancy to the throne of England.

These are only a few of the ancestors (from the 11th and 12th century gathered around the Great Snooker Table in the sky. There are many more. It is easy to locate the men who brought the noble bloodline to the New World in the Whittington and Sullivan family trees: Nathaniel Littleton (Whittingtons) and Obadiah Bruen (Sullivans). They arrived in America circa 1638. We visited their respective British homes in Tarvin and Ludlow.

1] Lee, S., ed. (1897). Dictionary of National Biography vol. 49. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 101.

2] Salzmann.’The rape of Chichester: Introduction’, A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4: The Rape of Chichester (1953), pp. 1-2. URL: Date accessed: 8 August 2010

3] Horsfield. History of Sussex. pp.76 – 77

4] Britnel, R.H.; Campbell, Bruce M. S., eds. (1995). “Appendix 2”. A Commercialising Economy: England, 1086 to c1300. Manchester University Press; 1st edition. ISBN 0-7190-3994-0.

5] Painter, Sidney (1933). William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.