The Rouen Riot and Conan’s Leap

Conan's Leap - Rouen CastleThe Rouen Riot and Conan’s Leap

Warren Hollister

Peritia: v. 10 (1996)

In the course of the eleventh century, and more commonly in the twelfth, many of the growing towns of Western Europe were disrupted by communal riots. The objective of rebellious townspeople was usually to win privileges from their lay or ecclesiastical lords, but this was not always the case. One of the earliest occurred in Rouen in 1090. Its participants included wealthy merchants, evidently organised into rival factions or parties, but the chief instigators were contending members of the upper Anglo-Norman nobilityin particular, the three warring sons of the recently deceased William the Conqueror. Of these three, the middle brother, William II, ‘Rufus’, was king of England, the youngest, Henry, would in time become king of England, and the eldest, Robert Curthose duke of Normandy (nicknamed ‘short stockings’), had always wanted to be king of England but never quite managed it.

The three brothers were, on the whole, distinctly unfraternal. William Rufus campaigned to wrest Normandy from Robert Curthose, who had earlier sought unsuccessfully to take England from Rufus. Henry, being the youngest and least powerful (perhaps eighteen at his father’s death), was victimised by both. When, shortly after the Conqueror’s death, Robert Curthose needed money to make war on William Rufus, he sold much of Western Normandy along with a comital title to Henry (who had inherited some £5000 from his father), but not long afterward Robert tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the region without repaying the money. When Henry sailed to England to claim the lands his mother had bequeathed him, Rufus refused to give them to him. On Henry’s return to Normandy, in the company of the powerful magnate Robert of Belleme, Robert Curthose, without apparent cause, seized both of them by surprise and imprisoned them for a number of months. Once he was freed, Henry returned to Western Normandy where he was welcomed by friends and supporters. There he remained, keeping a low profile while Rufus and Curthose battled for Eastern and Central Normandy. By 1090, the year of the Rouen riot, Rufus had won over to his cause, largely through bribery, much of the nobility of north-eastern Normandy. Henry was strong in the West – in the vicomtes of the Cotentin, the Avranchin, and the Bessin. And Curthose had the fragile support of various great landholding vassals of central Normandy. He also enjoyed the prestige of being the Conqueror’s eldest son, and the legitimacy stemming from possession of the ducal title. His chief strength however, both political and economic, was in the ducal capital of Rouen, a flourishing centre of commerce and Normandy’s largest city, guarded by substantial walls and a formidable castle at their south-eastern corner.


William Rufus’s growing network of baronial allies extended across Upper Normandy and into the neighbouring county of Ponthieu.1 Most of these men held lands on both sides of the Channel and were therefore vassals of both duke and king. Among those whom Rufus bribed or otherwise persuaded to join his cause were Reginald of St-Valery (from whose harbour at the mouth of the Somme the Conqueror had embarked for England in 1066), Stephen of Aumale (on the Bresle), Robert count of Eu (who controlled the mouth of the Bresle and was also lord of Hastings), Gerard of Gournay (with three castles near the Epte frontier), Walter II Giffard (with a castle at Longueville controlling the river Scie and substantial estates in Buckinghamshire soon to become an earldom), and Ralph of Mortemer (lord of Wigmore in Herefordshire). Rufus also drew into his burgeoning alliance system Ralph of Tosny, a great baron of the Evrecin in east-central Normandy with castles at Tosny on the Seine and Conches to the southwest, who had obtained Rufus’s military aid in a feud with his neighbour and half-brother, William count of Evreux.2

The king remained in England, but he garrisoned the castles of his allies with knights in his pay, who ravaged and burned enemy lands roundabout.3 Rufus’s grip on the northeast was tightening through most of 1090, but it remained less than complete. Duke Robert made a dependable ally of one important upper-Norman baron, Elias of Saint-Saens, by giving him an illegitimate daughter in marriage, with the lordship of nearby Bures-en-Bray and the county of Arques as her maritagium. Elias reciprocated with a lifelong devotion to the duke and, in later years, to his son, William Clito.4 Curthose also gained the support of his overlord, king Philip I, but only for a time. The French king was by now nearing forty and growing increasingly fat. William of Malmesbury, in a memorable passage, describes him as coming hiccuping to Curthose’s aid, “belching from his daily surfeit of food; but while he was making great boasts, the king of England’s money met him along the way and overcame his resolution, whereupon he unbuckled his armour and returned to his gormandizing”.5

Rufus in the meantime, still in England, had launched a plot that could well have won him all Normandy. Through bribes and promises, the king’s agents had managed to secure the clandestine allegiance of the dominant faction of townspeople in Rouen. The leader of the faction was the wealthiest and most influential burgher in the city, Conan son of Gilbert Pilatus, whose followers were known as ‘Pilatenses’.6 In the opinions of Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, both of whose writings often reflect aristocratic values, Conan was far wealthier and more powerful than any burgher deserved to be. He “arrogantly maintained against the duke”, Orderic complains, “a huge permanent household of knights and dependants”.7 Far worse, he had made a secret pact with Rufus to hand over the city to him. Conan and his crowd of followers were thus committing treason against their rightful lord (to whom they had clearly sworn allegiance in some form) and would have been reviled by many nobles for their breach of faith, regardless of whether it had been against Curthose or Rufus. Orderic, although no admirer of “the slumbering duke”, condemns Conan for his “vile treachery”, and Malmesbury, writing independently of Orderic, denounces “the treachery of the citizens” whom Conan led.8

With a following that included the majority of Rouen’s citizens, Conan seems to have been confident of victory. Late in October 1090, he sent confidential messages to the king’s forces in their castles in Upper Normandy telling them to move immediately on Rouen to join forces with his own men, who were ready to take up arms on their arrival.9 Curthose, by an enormous stroke of good fortune, somehow got wind of the plot and was able to act in time to thwart it. He summoned to Rouen several of his trusted barons of south-eastern Normandy: Orderic names William count of Evreux, his nephew William of Breteuil, and Gilbert of Laigle, of whom the first two had served the duke the previous year as military commanders.10 They answered his summons quickly, prompted not only by loyalty to their lord but also, perhaps, by outright shock at the effrontery of the ignoble citizens of Rouen (the era of the great communal riots had only recently dawned) and by the hope of extracting immense ransoms from them. Curthose even had the temerity to seek help from his two recent victims, count Henry and Robert of Belleme, and both of them, impelled perhaps by similar motives of outrage and greed, brought their contingents to Rouen to fight on the duke’s behalf. Henry’s willingness to come to the rescue and his leadership in the subsequent melee may well have saved Curthose’s regime, for without Rouen the duke’s prospects would have been dim indeed.11

Henry was the first to arrive, joining Curthose in Rouen castle around the beginning of November, well in advance of the outbreak of fighting.12 Hostilities commenced on the morning of 3 November, a Sunday, and lasted for several hours.13 They were set off by the arrival of a ducal contingent and a company of royalists, each approaching the city from opposite directions. The duke’s fidelis Gilbert of Laigle led his knights across the Seine bridge up to the south gate of the city, while Reginald of Warenne, an ally of William Rufus, approached the west gate, known as the Cauchoise gate, to join forces with Conan.14 At this news, Conan urged on his men to unbar the west gate to admit Reginald and his knights into the city while resisting the entrance of Gilbert of Laigle’s contingent through the south gate. Conan’s forces were supported by a number of retainers in the king’s pay who had filtered secretly into the city, while a minority of citizens fought against Conan on behalf of the duke.15

The conflict that followed was violent, chaotic, and lethal. The streets of Rouen echoed with an appalling din as citizen fought citizen until it became uncertain who was on which side. Amidst this savage mel6e, Robert Curthose and Henry burst out of the ducal castle – the ‘tower of Rouen’ – accompanied by their knights.16 Orderic credits Curthose with the intention of aiding his supporters among the townspeople, but the violence and confusion were so great that the duke appears to have lost his nerve. Described as being “much alarmed”, he yielded to the advice of his friends to elude the tumult and avoid risking an ignoble death at the hands of some berserk townsman. Slipping off with a small following, he made his way through the east gate into the suburb of Malpalu, just outside the city wall to the south of the cathedral. From there he was ferried across the Seine to the more distant and safer suburb of Emendreville (the present industrial district of Saint-Sever, across the Pont Jeanne d’Arc). The escape may well have been planned well in advance, because when Curthose arrived at Emendreville his close adviser, the monk William of Arques, is said to have been awaiting him. They took refuge there during the remainder of the rebellion at the church of Notre-Dame-du-Pre, a Bec priory as yet unfinished that Curthose subsequently rewarded with the tithe of the hay from his hunting park outside Rouen.17

Henry remained in the city with his knights and continued to fight on behalf of his absent brother, rallying pro-ducal citizens to his side. Now Gilbert of Laigle, with the aid of ducal supporters inside the walls, captured the south gate and led his knights into the city where they joined forces with Henry and his men and engaged the rebel townsmen in furious hand-to-hand fighting. The tide now turned against Conan and his rebels as the ducal party grew larger and more assured. Citizens on both sides continued to fight murderously with each other, resulting in a ferocious slaughter “as men struggled and fought and fled and women wept and wailed”.18 The royalist knights, sensing defeat, panicked and fled into the nearby woods where they sought out hiding places. And the ducal allies, now including such latecomers as William count of Evreux and Robert of Belleme, began snatching up the wealthy prisoners whom they had been hoping to find. Conan himself was taken captive and led to the ducal castle, where he was placed in Henry’s custody.19

There followed one of the most striking episodes in Henry’s life. The young prince, now twenty‑one or twenty‑two years old and doubtless accompanied by some of his knights, led Conan up the spiral stairway of the great tower to the topmost room. According to Orderic, Henry was deeply angered by Conan’s treason against the duke. The chronicler ‘quotes’ Henry as addressing Conan in these bitter, mocking words:

Admire, Conan, the beauty of the country you tried to conquer.
Away to the south there is a delightful hunting region, wooded
and well stocked with beasts of the chase. See how the river
Seine, full of fishes, laps the wall of Rouen and daily brings in
ships laden with merchandise of many kinds. On the other side
see the fair and populous city, with its ramparts and churches
and town buildings, which has rightly been the capital of all
Normandy from the earliest days.20

Pale with dread, Conan begged for mercy:

My lord, I deserve condemnation for my own guilt, but now I ask
mercy for the sake of God who created all things. For my ransom
I will give my lord all the gold and silver that I can find in my own
and my kinsmen’s treasure-stores, and in compensation for my
treachery I will give you faithful service until I die.

Henry answered with an oath: “By my mother’s soul, there shall be no ransom for a traitor, only swifter infliction of the death he deserves”. Then Conan cried out, “For the love of God, allow me to confess my sins.” But Henry, trembling with anger, thrust him out the tower window to his death. The men on the ground below tied Conan’s lifeless body to a horse’s tail and had him dragged like Hector through all the streets of the city as a warning to traitors. For many decades thereafter, the tower of Rouen was known as ‘Conan’s Leap’.21

The defenestration of Conan has been regarded by many historians as an act of blatant cruelty on Henry’s part. By modern Western ethical standards it certainly was. But since it is the historian’s responsibility to understand how such acts were viewed at the time, it must be observed that many contemporaries would have applauded Henry’s spirited response to the treason of an overweening commoner. Orderic clearly admires Henry for his eloquence and high spirits, and for his determination to inflict just and summary punishment on an evildoer. Malmesbury’s account of the episode places even more emphasis on the importance of punishing treason, ascribing to Henry the words, “No respite is due a traitor”, and that “the punishment of a man who turned traitor after swearing loyalty and doing homage ought never to be deferred” (ii 469). Suger of St-Denis and Galbert of Bruges display similar attitudes when they describe with unabashed admiration the summary punishments in 1127 of the nouveau-riche murderers of count Charles the Good of Flanders and their (presumably innocent) followers, a great many of whom were put to death by being pushed from the tops of ramparts or by other, less forthright means.22 Professor John Gillingham has correctly pointed out that in Anglo-Norman times punishments for treason were becoming gentler, with imprisonment and ransoming replacing death or mutilation, but only within the charmed circle of the aristocracy.23 Understood in this way, Gillingham can convincingly describe William the Conqueror as `chivalrous’ despite the mass atrocities that he inflicted on the citizens of Alencon and, later, the inhabitants of Yorkshire and Cheshire.24 As Gillingham states with regard to Henry’s deed in 1090, “Conan was a bourgeois and different rules clearly applied”.25

The significance of the Rouen riot and its political outcome can only be discerned if one understands that Henry’s behaviour throughout the affair would have been widely regarded as heroic, particularly so in contrast with the timidity of the duke.26 Henry, as Orderic stresses, was the first to come to his brother’s aid; it was he, Malmesbury asserts, who almost single-handedly expelled the king’s party from Rouen; and it was he, Orderic concludes, who took proper vengeance on the chief traitor.27 The killing of Conan would have been seen as the act of a dauntless, high-spirited young man; it constituted a memorable climax to a day of gallant warfare on Henry’s part in defence of the ducal capital against the vile treachery of low-born townsmen. And the name ‘Conan’s leap’ would have evoked the memory for years to come of an upstart traitor on whom a valiant prince, refusing to be bought off, had inflicted the summary justice that was so clearly appropriate and richly deserved. Such, at least, were the views of Orderic and William of Malmesbury, of those who had Conan’s corpse dragged through Rouen “as a warning to traitors”, and, very likely, of those who renamed the tower.

When Curthose returned from Notre-Dame-duPre to the castle after the rebellion had been quelled, he is said to have been moved by compassion for the suffering of the citizens. He asked his barons to act gently toward them, but Orderic regretfully reports that they ignored his plea altogether. Robert of Belleme, Gilbert of Laigle, and William of Breteuil, “like foreign raiders”, carried off inhabitants of Rouen en masse. They were imprisoned in dungeons until they should pay the highest ransoms, and pitilessly abused as though they were foreign enemies. William of Breteuil kept one especially wealthy citizen, William fitz Ansgar, in a foul dungeon until, after a long period of suffering, he was permitted to ransom himself for £3000 (the exact sum that Henry had given Curthose for western Normandy).28 Orderic does not include Henry among the captive-takers.

The utter futility of Curthose’s request for clemency toward the citizens is perhaps indicative of the depth to which his prestige had plunged. Just as Henry emerged from the Rouen riot as a hero, Curthose emerged with a severely damaged knightly reputation. In the face of grave danger to his principal city, the duke of Normandy had retired to the safety of a suburban church while a younger brother some fifteen years his junior had fought energetically to save his duchy. The spectacular execution of Conan and the renaming of the tower doubtless added salt to the wounded ducal psyche. His own principal residence, looking down on his capital city, would thenceforth bear the nickname that rekindled embarrassing memories. Seen in this light, it is comprehensible that the duke’s gratitude toward Henry was both grudging and short-lived. In Malmesbury’s disapproving words (ii 469), Curthose immediately became ungrateful and, being a man of changeable disposition, compelled his deserving brother to leave the city. Perhaps Henry had requested and been denied a de jure restoration of his de facto lordship in the West, but the sources are silent on any such matter. Whatever the case, the grave damage to duke Robert’s military reputation could well have contributed to his otherwise surprising decision shortly afterwards to combine forces with Rufus to drive Henry from Normandy. It could also have been a factor in impelling the duke to seek the restoration of his fortunes and self respect by joining the First Crusade.


1. For general accounts see E. A. Freeman, The reign of William Rufus and the accession of Henry the First I (Oxford 1882) 245-61; Frank Barlow, William Rufus (London 1983) 273-74; and C. W. David, Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy (Cambridge MA 1920) 56-8, 62.

2. Marjorie Chibnall (ed), The ecclesiastical history of Orderic Vitalis (6 vols, Oxford 1969-80), iv 212-14; see also ibid. iii 126-28. The feud was stimulated, so Orderic relates, by a rivalry between the lively wives of the two baronies, Isabel of Conches (of the great frontier family of Montfort l’Amaury) and Helwise of Evreux (of the comital family of Nevers): Marjorie Chibnall, `Women in Orderic Vitalis’, Haskins Soc J 2 (1990) 115-16. As recently as 1088 Ralph had served under Curthose’s command: Barlow, Rufus, 268-69. On the Tosny family ‘see Lucien Musset, ‘Aux origines d’une classe dirigeante: les Tosny, grands barons normands du xe au xiiie siecle’, Francia 5 (1978) 45-80.

3. ASC s.a. 1090.

4. Orderic, iv 182; vi 92, 162-64, 286-88, 368.

5. William Stubbs (ed), Willelmi Malmesbirensis be gestis regum Anglorum, RS 90 (2 vols, London 1889), ii 363; ASC, s.a. 1090. Philip was, however, by no means incapacitated by gluttony; he was soon to create an international scandal by abandoning his wife Bertha of Holland for a younger woman, the beautiful Bertrada de Montfort, countess of Anjou, who bore him two sons and a daughter: Orderic, iv 260-64; Augustin Fliche, Le regne de Philippe ler roi de France (1060‑1108) (Paris 1912) 36-75, 90.

6. Orderic, iv 220 and 221 n 5; Charles Homer Haskins, Norman institutions (Cambridge MA 1918) 92, recording a later judgment that refers back to the `gravis dissentio’ in 1090 ‘in urbe Rothomagensi’ between the ‘partes Pilatensium … et Calloensium’. For another later reference back to the riot see H. A. Cronne and R. H. C. Davis, Regesta regum Anglo Normannorum, 1066-1154 (4 vols, Oxford 1913-69), ii no 1002. See, in general, David, Robert Curthose, 56-58.

7. Orderic, iv 220.

8. ibid. Malmesbury, ii 469, where Conan himself is condemned as one who turned traitor after having done homage to Duke Robert (` … qui tibi juratus fecerit hominium …’).

9. Orderic, iv 220.

10. Orderic, iv 154-56, 222; Barlow, Rufus, 268-69, 274-75; it is uncertain whether the Gilbert of Laigle who came to duke Robert’s assistance in 1090 is Gilbert son of Richer or his uncle Gilbert son of Engenulf (see Orderic, iv 224 n 3).

11. Barlow offers this plausible opinion (Rufus, 274).

12. For this and what follows we must again depend primarily on Orderic, iv 222-26.

13. Dr Chibnall observes that the precision of Orderic’s date (3 November) suggests that he derived it from a written source, perhaps an obit (Orderic, iv 222 n 1); the obit of queen Matilda, Henry’s mother, was celebrated on 3 November at St-Evroult (ibid. iv 45 n 3).

14. The Cauchoise gate was so called because it opened to the road into the district of Caux, northwest of Rouen. Reginald of Warenne, younger brother of William II of Warenne, earl of Surrey, held lands in Flanders but was probably based at this time in one or the other of the two Warenne castles in upper Normandy: Bellencombre and Mortemer-sur-Eaulne: C. Warren Hollister, Monarchy, magnates, and institutions in the Anglo-Norman world (London 1986) 140-41; Early Yorkshire charters: 8, The honour of Warenne, ed. C. T. Clay (Wakefield 1949) 1-12, 40-46; Complete peerage, xii/1 (London 1953) 491-96.

15. The pro-ducal citizens were, presumably, the `Calloenses’ of n 6.

16. No trace of the tower has survived. It stood next to the Seine, due south of the cathedral, at the south-east corner of the square city walls of Roman and medieval times. Its site is now denoted by the Place de la Haute-Vieille-Tour (Orderic, iv 225 n 4).

17. Orderic, iv 222-24 and 224 n 2; Haskins, Institutions, 68; Regesta, i no 327; for several reasons the charter must be February 1091, not February 1092, as it is dated internally and by Haskins and H. W. C. Davis. By 1092 Rufus, whose rights are reserved in the charter, was again at odds with Curthose (ASC s.a. 1091), and William bishop of Durham, who attests the charter for the duke, was in England (Regesta, i no 330, 332; ii 400 no 319a). Notre-Dame-du-Pre (or `de Bonne-Nouvelle’) was founded by the Conqueror and his wife Matilda and completed by Henry I (Arthur du Monstier (ed) Neustria pia (Rouen 1663) 611; Regesta, ii no 1290).

18. Orderic, iv 224: Orderic seems to ascribe the ferocious slaughter of townspeople less to Gilbert or Henry or their knights than to other townspeople: `Ciuibus ut prelibaturn est uicissim dissidentibus et tristis infortunii procellis periclitantibus …’ .

19. William of Malmesbury (ii 469) evidently errs in stating that Conan was first a prisoner of the duke, who then granted Henry’s request for custody of the rebel leader; Orderic (iv 224), whose account is much more detailed and credible, has Curthose lingering in his church at Emendreville while Henry disposed of Conan.

20. Orderic’s `quotations’ of Henry’s words, while obviously not verbatim transcripts, may be substantially authentic; they are more or less consistent with William of Malmesbury’s narrative of the event (ii 469), in which Henry addresses Conan with similar irony on the beauty of Rouen. I have taken the liberty of using Dr Chibnall’s skilful translation of Orderic, iv 225-27.

21. Orderic, iv 224-26; Orderic, writing in the mid-1130s (iv, p xix), reports that the tower `is called “Conan’s leap” to this day’. William of Malmesbury (ii 469) tells the same story much more briefly and vaguely, adding to Henry’s oration on the beauties of Rouen the ironic statement that it should all belong to Conan – perhaps evoking the biblical account of Jesus’s temptation. For a detailed comparison of the two see Freeman, Rufus, ii 516-18.

22. Galbert of Bruges, Histoire du meurtre de Charles le Bon, ed. Henri Pirenne (Paris 1891) 92, 125-26, 128-29 and passim. The chief participants in count Charles’s murder were kinsmen of Erembald castellan of Bruges, who was suspected of having risen from villain ancestry; the family dominated the towns of Flanders much as the Pilatenses had dominated Rouen. For an alternative punishment see Suger, Vie de Louis VI le gros, ed. Henri Waquet (Paris 1964) 246-48 where Suger writes approvingly of king Louis VI’s having a Flemish rebel suspended from a gallows alongside a mad dog and eaten alive.

23. John Gillingham, “1066 and the introduction of chivalry into England,” George Garnett & John Hudson (ed), Law and government in medieval England and Normandy: essays in honour of Sir James Holt (Cambridge 1994) 31‑55.

24. Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts (ed), The gesta Normannorum ducum of William of Jumieges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, Oxford Medieval Texts (2 vols Oxford 1992-95), ii 124; D. C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (London, 1964) 60, 219-20; David Bates, William the Conqueror (London 1989) 34, 80-81.

25. loc. cit. 45.

26. The uprising in Rouen was not the only occasion when duke Robert’s timidity evoked comment: see, for example, Orderic (v 26) writing generally of Curthose: `… plus prouinciales subditos timens quam ab illis timebatur ….’; and Malmesbury (ii 263) in reference to the duke’s response to the allies that Rufus acquired during 1090 in Upper Normandy: `Nec fait animus comiti ut resisteret…’.

27. Orderic, iv 222; Malmesbury, ii 469.

28. Orderic, iv 226. A William fitz Ansger, probably the same person, later served as a justice for Henry I in Normandy: ibid. iv 227 n 2; Haskins, Institutions, 98. William of Breteuil had recently paid an identical ransom for his own release after being captured in the course of a private war with his uncle, Ralph of Conches (Tosny) (Orderic, iv 214-16).


This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.