What happened to Tancred’s other sons?

Mar 06 2013

If the Normans of the 11th century are to be believed, Tancred de Hauteville was a boar-slaying, righteously glorious knight who sired 12 sons and at least two daughters.  Most of those children headed south to make their fortunes in Italy, and their story is covered in the Norman Centuries podcast.  But what about those who remained in Normandy?  Listener Shane asks what we know about the 4 children who stayed behind.

Our three main primary sources for all things Hauteville are Geoffrey Malaterra’s The Deeds of Count Roger, William of Apulia’s The Deeds of Robert Guiscard, and Amatus of Montecassino’s History of the Normans.  All were composed between 1080 and 1099, and deal mainly with the Normans in Italy, which means that we know next to nothing about those who opted to stay at home.  (Despite later attempts to make the patriarch into a figure worthy of his son’s accomplishments, no one in Normandy at the time cared enough about an impoverished knight to record anything about him).  The only one who mentions the remaining sons at all is Malaterra, who simply lists the names Aubrey, Hubert, and Tancred jr, and then moves on.  Two daughters (Beatrix and Fressenda) are mentioned because of the husbands they married (Fresseda especially played an important part in early Norman politicking).  The only exception to this informational blackout, concerns the oldest brother Serlo.  Malaterra mentions that he ran afoul of the Duke (Robert the Devil- William the Conqueror’s father) for murdering a man.  In exile he occupied himself with the family business of piracy, raiding Normandy repeatedly.  After a suitably heroic display of valor against a local French champion (single combat naturally), Serlo wins over Duke Robert, who realizes the error of exiling such a knight.  Serlo pledges his loyalty and presumably settles down into a wealthy, well-respected life- the Norman equivalent of happily ever after.

Due to the paucity of source material, there really hasn’t been any historical writing on these sons of Tancred who stayed in Normandy.  (For that matter there hasn’t been much about any except Guiscard and Count Roger).  But if historical fiction is more to your taste, there is at least one option.  The Words of Bernfrieda: A Chronicle of Hauteville by Gabriella Brooke tells the story of a handmaiden of Tancred’s daughter Fressenda and the clash between the brothers Guiscard and Roger.  Since women are almost completely ignored in our primary sources, I think it’s fitting that in this case the two most famous siblings are footnotes in their sister’s story.

6 responses so far

  1. Thank you for spending your time answering these questions. I cannot underscore how refreshing it is that you can so aptly answer them.


    A good fan

  2. maybe this is the wrong place for the remark therefore I apologize.

    I just listened to your stupor mundi Podcast edition and was surprised to learn that it is Friedrich II who is supposed to sit under a mountain awaiting his return.

    As best I know that story is popular in Germany only with Friedrich Barbarossa as hero whose red beard is supposed to have grown through the stone table he sits at

    And while I am at it – I enjoy your podcasts very much in every respect, history-, story telling- voice … thanks galore for them

  3. Thanks Sinan- but I can assure you that most of the fun is on my side of the equation. I’m fortunate to be asked interesting questions!

  4. Not to worry- this is absolutely the right place. You’re correct that the Kyffhauser legend applies today to Barbarossa. The mountain is popularly believed to be that emperor’s final resting place, and Barbarossa has morphed into a kind of national hero. (this at least makes more sense than Frederick II as one!) However, the legend was first told during the so-called ‘Great Interregnum’- the period after the death of Frederick II’s son Conrad- a time of chaos in the Empire. Only 4 years separated the days of greatness under Frederick from the anarchy of the interregnum and it was natural to look back and long for the stability of the stupor mundi. As time passed, and the memories of the Sicilian Kingdom faded, the idea of Frederick as a German hero migrated to his grandfather- who was thoroughly Teutonic. In a way, that really sums up Frederick and the entire Sicilian kingdom. Such brilliance ahead of its time- but ultimately largely forgotten…

  5. lars

    it is thanks to you and your wonderful 12 Byzantine Emperors podcast which put that empire one on my map and which led to Sicily being extremely fascinating to me (to think that they and North Africa were the corn chamber of the ancient Romans – what America fly-over country is today to the world)
    (right now I am half way through Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Potemkin thus kind of approaching the Bosporus from the North.)

    I had a geography teacher in school, some 60 years ago, who told us that the Russians are keen on getting a hold on the Bosporus aka having free access to the Mediterranean – your podcast reminded me of that and of members of the US Navy in the early 70s who’d talk about nothing but Russian submarines when watering up at Greek island bars.

    The path from yours to John Julius Norwich’s two books on the Normans in the South has not been a straight one but especially the first has taught me a lot. Norwich btw hates Barbarossa unequivocally (he hates everybody who isn’t kind to mosaics) which somehow makes me glad because I hated it in school whenever we had to listen to hero worshipping propaganda instead of living human beings history.

  6. Did the descendants of the son’s of Tancred de Hauteville, who remained in Normandy, end up in England?

    There are two families of interest here.

    First the families of Ralf and Aubrey who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. Ralf de Hauville is certainly in Domesday Book of 1086. However historians argue over whether he came from Hauville, near Rouen or some other such place. Today I think there is more than one village called “Hauville” in Normandy.

    The second family is a more interesting bet. They came from the Cotentin in Normandy with Henry II in the 1150s. Three brothers Ralf, Tancred and Humphrey who clearly used the names de Hautville and latinized in early documents as Altavilla.

    The family were clearly favourites of Henry II, being falconers in Henry’s court. They were given lands in Norfolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire etc. Mainly for the use in exercising the officer of falconer as the King sported across the country. Interestingly this family maintained a connection with Normandy, having lands near Preaux.

    There is probably lots of de Hauteville DNA floating around as the English branch still exists today.

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