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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Bigods

The Bigods and Norwich - From the Norman Conquest to the Death of Hugh

The Bigod family are renowned for their great castles in Suffolk, the ruinous edifices of which still grace the county's skyline today. In the twelfth century however, the royal castle at Norwich figured prominently in the political dealings, and treacherous manoeuvrings, for which the family are famed.


Given their notorious predilection for rebellion, it is perhaps ironic that the origins of Bigod family dominance in the eastern counties were built on loyalty to the crown. Roger Bigod was a second rank Norman nobleman, whose rise was indicative of many of his ilk. Following the conquest of England in 1066, Bigod had risen from ducal service to become a royal advisor. In the process he had steadily acquired his first assets in East Anglia. The rebellion of Ralph Guader from Norwich in 1075 had created a vacuum in the east, and his vacant lands, combined with those from other forced dispossessions, allowed Bigod to establish himself in the region. His allegiance and landholdings further elevated his status in the king's court.

Following the death of William the Conqueror in 1087, the throne of England became a precarious position in the Anglo-Norman Kingdom. William made the decision to divide his lands between his eldest son Robert 'Curthose', who became Duke of Normandy, and his second surviving son William 'Rufus' who was made King of England. Robert was an ambitious man, impatient to claim his inheritance; he had been a thorn in the side of his father and was never likely to settle for only a share of the kingdom. This division put magnates such as Bigod in a dilemma. Twenty years after the conquest they had to choose between loyalty to their king, or their duke, and their Norman roots.

Back in Normandy, Bigod had been an under-tenant of Odo of Bayeux, who now became the leading figure in the revolt against Rufus on the English side of the Channel. Aligning himself with his former overlord, Bigod joined the cause to re-unite the Anglo-Norman Kingdom under Robert. The key strategic military innovation of the eleventh century had been the Norman's use of castles to establish their control over an area of land, and this was something that the rebels were quick to exploit. Across England, in anticipation that Robert would invade from Normandy to support their move, some of the most powerful men in the country moved to secure castles in their region. For Roger Bigod the royal castle at Norwich was a prime target, and it was duly seized.     

Rufus was an astute politician and sought to split the rebels; offering to increase their English lands, and cautioning them not to oppose the decision of the Conqueror. Through a combination of cajoling, threats, and brute force, William succeeded in suppressing the rebellion. After a lengthy siege at Rochester, Odo was captured and Robert, now on the back foot, found his position in Normandy consistently undermined by his brother. Bigod's flirtation with the rebel cause was brief, and his realignment with the king indeed proved profitable. A frequent attester to the king's charters, by the time of Henry I's accession to the throne he was in a position to become a principle advisor to the new monarch. Sometime before his death in 1107, he acquired the manor of Framlingham that was to become so indelibly linked to the Bigod name, his lands then passed to his son William.

In 1120 another drama about the issue of succession once more plunged the Anglo-Norman Kingdom into conflict. In November of that year the White Ship sank off Barfleur taking the life of the only legitimate male heir to Henry's throne. Among the other casualties of the disaster was William Bigod. The event was to prove as fateful for the fortunes of the Bigod family as it was for the crown.

Hugh and Norwich Castle

The Bigod inheritance fell into the hands of William's younger brother Hugh. Initially, Hugh continued to tread the path of his ancestors in cultivating strong links with the king. As the question of succession dominated politics for the remainder of Henry's reign, the Bigod position was consolidated, with Hugh being among the eleven wealthiest magnates and the among the ten most frequent baronial attesters to charters, by the time of the king's death.

Henry's demise made civil war inevitable and once more the nobles of the day were forced to stake their fortunes on support for one of two candidates for the throne of England. Henry's nephew Stephen had seized the initiative in securing the arms of government behind him, and was anointed King of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 22 December 1135. He was now king but was he legitimately so? It was commonly accepted that before his death, Henry had selected his daughter Matilda as his successor, but in male dominated medieval England there were many sympathetic to Stephen's cause. Hugh became one of his most prominent backers, taking an oath (with two other unnamed knights) to testify that the king had changed his mind on his deathbed and had in fact named Stephen his heir. This was a bold move, debates at the papal court declared the oath invalid given that Hugh had not been present at Henry's death. Bigod had however been in Normandy and almost certainly tended upon the king, whatever the truth of the matter it put Hugh in excellent standing to receive Stephen's favour.

Or so he would be forgiven for thinking. The first strains in the alliance were revealed in 1136, when Hugh took possession of Norwich Castle. Stephen demanded the return of the royal residence and Hugh reluctantly withdrew, protesting his innocence against any accusations of rebellion. The two men resolved their differences and continued their campaign against Matilda's claim to the throne. Hugh continued to witness the king's charters and fought alongside Stephen in the one major battle of the civil war, at Lincoln in 1141. Nevertheless the events in Norwich evidently still rankled; whether the result of a simple misunderstanding, or, more cynically, if he felt he had not been adequately rewarded for his oath, or even fallen for the rumour that Stephen had died and was seizing a perceived opportunity, it is clear that Bigod coveted Norwich Castle. His desire for it marked him out as an ambitious man and this was to feature prominently in his subversive politics that would define the rest of his life.

Ties between Hugh and Stephen were severed in 1141, coinciding with the defeat and capture of the latter at Lincoln, which made Matilda empress of England. Bigod's switch in favour of Matilda was initially fruitful on a personal level as he was made earl of Norfolk. However, with Stephen once more at liberty and Matilda's highhanded rule imploding, Hugh later found himself increasingly marginalised in Suffolk. The antagonism between the two men henceforth continued unabated. Hugh, still conspiring with the king's enemies lost his castle at Ipswich, and Stephen compounded his misery and wounded his pride still further by refusing to recognise his earldom.

A glimmer of light however appeared to Bigod, in the shape of Matilda's son Henry, who entered the fray to lay claim to his mother's rights. Hugh threw his weight behind these efforts. Despite making little impact militarily upon the conflict, Henry secured a political victory in the civil war by being acknowledged as Stephen's future successor. Henry II's ultimate succession restored Bigod to the king's favour, to an extent. His title of Earl of Norfolk was confirmed upon him in 1155, but the peace settlement agreed between Henry and Stephen two years earlier had made certain concessions that meant that Norwich Castle slipped through his grasp and into the hands of Stephen's son, William. Worse was to follow, by 1157 Henry, bent on bringing his barons to heel, felt in a strong enough position to confiscate all Bigod's castles. Bungay and Framlingham were returned in exchange for a heavy fine in 1165, but that year the king began work to further constrain Hugh's power by beginning work on his own great castle at Orford.

Bigod remained insubordinate, in 1166 it was recorded that he refused to do guard duty at Norwich Castle despite being ordered to do so by the king. Henry's efforts to check Hugh were tested to the utmost 1173, when an issue related to succession once more reared its head. Following French convention, the king had his eldest son Henry crowned during in his lifetime, thus causing potential for division should the Young King wish to flex his muscles. Sure enough in a striking parallel to Robert Curthose in the previous century, Henry proved to be a man of searing ambition and impatient for the actual power which he was still denied by his father. Like Robert, Henry rebelled. The disaffected nobility rallied behind his cause, Hugh Bigod baited with the prize of Norwich Castle played a prominent role in the events that followed. Receiving the earl of Leicester and his force of Flemish mercenaries at Framlingham, Bigod's military activity centred on Suffolk before Leicester made a push for his own earldom. He was defeated and captured at Fornham near Bury St Edmunds. In spring 1174 Bigod was off to Norwich to once more claim the castle as his. King Henry II, who had been preoccupied in dealing with the continental dimension of the rebellion, arrived in England in July and with characteristic energy set about quashing the opposition. Hugh was once more forced to relinquish Norwich, but was also forced to pay a heavier price: his Suffolk castles were seized and demolished.

Bigod's political manoeuvrings had ultimately failed to realise his ambitions and worse still, exposed Norfolk and Suffolk to the wrath of the king. Norwich suffered at Hugh's hand and in the aftermath of the rebellion there were bitter recriminations over Henry's vengeance which he had incurred. Now an old man of more than eighty, Hugh left England to make his peace with God, he perished on route to the holy land sometime around the year 1177.  

Further Reading

  • Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-53, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998
  • R.H.C Davis, King Stephen (Third Edition), London: Longman, 1990
  • David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror, London: Yale University Press, 1999


Robert Smith

December 2010