In 1076 William the Conqueror suffered his first serious military setback in France for twenty years. Thwarted in his attempts to siege Dol Castle, William was forced to retire with heavy casualties. The damage to his prestige was considerable, the initiative which he had seized in continental politics so emphatically two decades before had slipped through his hands, and was now firmly in the grasp of the French king.
William's failure at Dol was an extension of events that had occurred a year earlier. They had begun with a rebellion on the other side of the channel; the man who brought the theatre of war to France was a Breton lord with an earldom in England. His name was Ralph Guader, Lord of Gael, earl of East Anglia, and constable of Norwich Castle.
Ralph Guader inherited his title and his lands from his father, Ralph the Staller. His lineage is interesting in that it demonstrates some of the reasons why the Normans were able to invade, and consolidate their rule in England. In the first instance, the success of the conquest was in no small part facilitated by the web of connections already in existence across the channel. The half-Norman king, Edward the Confessor had presided over a gradual inclusion of Normans and Bretons within the English church and lay community. Of mixed Breton/English descent, Norfolk-born Ralph the Staller was married to a Breton and had a seat and special duties to perform in the royal household (the name 'Staller' derives from his role); a position which he held when the king died childless on January 5 1066.
The legitimacy of William's assault on England that year stemmed from his conviction that he was the true heir to Edward. After defeating his rival Harold in battle, he set about underlining this claim by emphasising continuity with the rule of the Confessor. To this end, he appointed Ralph as earl of East Anglia, a title that had become vacant following the death of the previous earl, Harold's brother Gyrth Godwineson, in hand to hand combat at Hastings. Ralph already had substantial landholdings in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire, including fourteen acres in Norwich, and having evidently been quick to submit to the new king, he was duly rewarded for his allegiance.
Loyalty was paramount to William immediately after the conquest as the shock waves of the invasion rippling around Britain sparked strong resistance. The king was sufficiently trusting of his magnates that within three months of his coronation he returned to his dukedom. However invaluable these men had proven to be, the task of holding entire regions whose submission had only been coercively acquired was beyond their means, and William was forced to swiftly return. He spent the next six months brutally suppressing native uprisings across England. The key strategic military innovation that worked in the Norman's favour was the castle. The gargantuan earthworks of defensive ditches and mounds, crowned with wooden towers became a familiar sight in the years after conquest, a striking sign of the increasing Norman domination of the English landscape. Work began on Norwich Castle around 1067, with at least ninety-eight homes cleared to make space for its construction. Just over a year into the building programme, Ralph the Staller died.
Ralph Guader would have been about thirty when he inherited his father's lands in England and Brittany. He was not without military experience, having fought alongside the Normans at Hastings. The Bretons formed probably the second largest group in the conquest aristocracy, yet their relationship with the new king was innately complex. Prior to his invasion of England, William had been able to exploit the tensions in Brittany between the ruler, Conan II, and his feudal lords, and thus had created his own support base in the region. Nevertheless despite the best efforts of the Normans to exercise their overlordship, the Bretons continued to act independently of William, and this was to have important consequences further down the line. It was in this spirit that Ralph the Staller had presided over his earldom, Domesday Book records instances of his laying hold estates for himself without consent from the king.
The defences at Norwich and the mettle of the new heir were soon put to the test. The size of William's kingdom meant that threats were geographically dispersed across the British Isles and his continental estates. While William was imposing his authority on the north of England, the Normans still faced the perennial threat from Scandinavia. In 1069 a massive Viking invasion landed south of the Humber. Ralph repelled the raiders at Norwich, a contemporary account describes how he 'fell on them and drove many of them to death by drowning'. The rest of their number retreated and entrenched themselves at Ely where they were defeated by the king. William's campaign in the following two years was to be the crowning glory of his military career and ensured that Norman rule prevailed. In hindsight these achievements were not finally secured in England however until 1075. Thus far, the multitude of threats that he had faced across the Anglo-Norman Kingdom had been dismissed with consummate military skill, but surely even a man of William's martial stature would be unable to repel all his enemies if they were acting in concert. The array of competing agendas amongst disaffected English, French and Scandinavians, made a stable alliance unlikely, but one man who came close to uniting these disparate groups was Ralph Guader.
What motivated Ralph's treachery is frustratingly unknown, but it certainly had broad appeal. Combining with his natural Breton allies, Ralph received support from two of his fellow earls, one English, Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and one Norman, Roger earl of Hereford. Of the seven earls in William's England therefore, three were complicit in the rebellion. Waltheof, the last surviving English earl, was high in the king's favour and in contemporary accounts is said to have associated himself with the conspiracy with reluctance. Roger however was fully implicated, for it was at the wedding of his daughter to Ralph that the plot was revealed.
The marriage took place at Exning near Newmarket, after which the earls departed to their respective lands, Ralph with his new wife Emma returned to Norwich. It might be thought that the wedding itself was a subversive act, but a letter of William's Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, testifies to the contrary. The gathering however certainly enabled the rebels to put the finishing touches to their plan. The continental dimension to the plot was completed when Ralph appealed to Scandinavia for support, and his fellow lords in Brittany were put on full alert.
The innate difficulties of mounting such a challenge on the Normans became clear from the very outset, as the English half of the plot floundered. The time that William had spent crushing English resistance and establishing the Norman presence since the conquest was to prove crucial. The king, once more in his dukedom was able remain on the other side of the channel as his trusted magnates halted the progress of Roger's advance out of Herefordshire, whilst Ralph was quickly thwarted in his attempts to join his rebels from the west. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, castles proved critical in frustrating his progress. Veterans of Hastings; Odo, bishop of Bayeux, Geoffrey of Countances, and Richard, son of Count Gilbert barred his way and forced Ralph to retreat to his own fortress at Norwich. Another man who fought alongside William in 1066 and joined in defence of the Anglo-Norman Kingdom was William of Warenne, who had recently acquired his first Norfolk possessions, including Castle Acre.
As royalist troops advanced on Norwich, Ralph chose not to defend his castle but entrusted it to his wife, whilst he departed to galvanise his continental support. Stirred into action Cnut II saw the opportunity to fulfil his ambition, and that of his father, to reunite England with Denmark. Some two hundred Viking warships set sail for England.
Back in Norwich the castle was under siege. Ralph's wife Emma showed not only great bravery and heroism resisting the royalist forces, but also considerable diplomatic skills, in negotiating for herself and many members of the garrison to depart for Brittany when the castle finally fell. Others were less fortunate; when William returned to England from Normandy to exact retribution for the revolt, many of those who had been present at the treacherous wedding were blinded and banished from the kingdom. The ringleaders were rounded up and imprisoned. Waltheof was held for several months before being beheaded at Winchester. Ralph was stripped of his earldom, his lands redistributed, some in Norfolk falling into the hands of William of Warenne. Norwich castle was seized, and the earldom was not revived during the Conqueror's reign.
Across the Channel in Anjou and Flanders, William's rivals had looked upon unfolding events intently; in particular the king of France, so often a peripheral figure in the age of the Conqueror, eyed the situation with interest. The English rebellion had failed, but as Emma returned to Brittany, Ralph had not been idle. Allying with fellow Breton lord Geoffrey Granon and reinforced by a contingent of soldiers from Anjou, he installed himself at Dol Castle near the Norman frontier. In September 1076 it was besieged by William the Conqueror. After holding out for a month an immaculately timed intervention by King Philip of France relieved the garrison. Dol proved the first in a number of setbacks for William, in the months that followed his enemies succeeded in capitalizing on this rare demonstration of Norman vulnerability.
For Ralph there was perhaps belated vindication for events in Norwich. His power in Brittany was entrenched by William's failure at Dol, and he was able to reside there in relative peace with his wife Emma for the next twenty years. In 1095 not long after Pope Urban's epoch defining speech at the Council of Clemont, Ralph took the cross to join the First Crusade. He was among the many that perished before reaching the Holy Land.