The Giroie: An Eleventh-/Twelfth-Century Norman Noble Family

(from Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History of the Normans, ca. 1140; based on analysis by Dominique Barthelemy, in History of Private Life, vol. 2, ed. G. Duby, Harvard U. Press, 1988, pp. 96-105)


General Account of the Family



The family that became known as the Giroie was typical of the upper strata of Norman elite in the 11th and early 12thcenturies. What we see is an extensive multilateral network of kinship, in which the affinity to the duke was becoming increasingly important. Our main source for their history the Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis, was mainly interested in family because they were patrons of his monastery St-Evroul d’Ouche. He therefore shaped his narrative to glorify the branch of the family that participated in the founding of the monastery. What follows is largely derived from Ordericus’s account.

Giroie, the founder of the family, settled in borderlands between Normandy and Maine ca. 1025. He was a soldier and companion-in-arms to the Lord of Bellême, a powerful noble. From a promised marriage to an heiress, Giroie was able to supplant the family of a landowner named Helgo and take control of Montreuil and Echauffour, twenty kilometers to the south, and build a castle on the latter. From a second marriage came seven sons and four daughters (see below). The naming pattern (Williams and Roberts) reflects connections with the ducal house of Normandy.

First generation:

William ‘the Giroie,’ Giroie’s eldest son to reach maturity, shared the honor of Montreuil with the second son, his brother Foucois. Foucois was the companion and godson of Gilbert, count of Brionne, William’s enemy. Count Gilbert, ‘chafing to enlarge his estates’ (in Orderic’s words), attacked Montreuill, but was driven off by William at the head of ‘a strong company of kinsmen and dependents.  William then counterattacked and seized the town of le Sap from Count Gilbert. When William defeated Gilbert, he disinherited his brother Foucois. (Orderic represent Foucois as illegitimate, the son of a concubine, which may be the victor rewriting history.) William acquired the castle of St-Céneri and left it to his younger brother Robert, who had supported him against Foucois. This Robert died in 1060 rebelling against Duke William the Conqueror. William secured his holdings by marrying the daughter of a powerful neighbor, Fulbert.

Although William dispossessed Foucois, he proved a more generous patron to his other brothers, sharing the family’s resources with them. He was not only the head of the clan but their personal lord. The cohesion of the clan is revealed by a laudatio, the formal permission that each member of the group had to give if one wished to donate land to a monastery. William endowed one brother, Robert, with a castle. He maintained another brother, Ralph”the ill-tonsured,” in his household at Montreuill and provided him with a generous stipend that allowed him to travel and study medicine. Ralph eventually became a physician and entered a monastery.

Five of Giroie’s seven sons died violently: one was accidentally lanced in a war game; one killed by accident wrestling; one in an ambush of the bodyguard of Count Gilbert, in whose entourage he was serving despite the Count’s attack on his family a few years before (the attackers included another of the Giroie boys); and a fourth during a raid on the lands of the Church of Lisieux. A fifth son, named Giroie, was accidentally killed by a squire, and, as he lay dying urged his squire to flee the vengeance of his brothers, whose interest in vengeance had less to do with fraternal love than with family honor. Another son became a cleric.

Of the daughters, two married lesser lords holding lands neighboring the Giroie’s possessions, swelling the family’s local retinue, and two married geographically remote partners of social rank equal to the Giroie, creating political alliances for the family. Hadvisse’s marriage to Robert of Grandmesnil led to her sons and her brothers William and Robert to co-found the monastery of Evroul around 1050 on the spot that Robert of Grandmesnil had died. The monastery thus connected to clans in an aura of sanctity. Two sons of the second generation, Robert of Grandmesnil.and Ernaud d’Echauffour eventually became monks.


Second generation:

Ernaud d’Echauffour was poisoned by Mabel of Bellême in 1064 leading to a long-lasting feud between the two clans. The Giroire also lost favor with Duke William. Thus while the Grandmesnil part of the clan prospered, the Giroire’s influence waned and a number of this generation sought adventure and wealth in southern Italy. One line of the family, that of Robert the Giroire, however, managed to survive as lords of St-Ceneri, largely because Robert I of St-Ceneri had married a cousin of William the Conqueror. His son Robert II not only retained St-Ceneri but in 1119 regained the family honors of Montreuil and Echauffour and then divided it among his sons.



Orderic’s account is to be compared to contemporary genealogies, which tend to be ideological constructs 1) devised to justify possession of the patrimony (hence focus on male line), and 2) which emphasize marriages that enhanced luster of clan. Orderic’s focus on his monastery permits us to see beyond these genealogies. The Giroie's story is not that of a "lineage" in which the eldest son inherited everything. Nor is it a straightforward story. Foucois may have been the eldest son, but because he lost out in the struggle with William, he was not only dispossessed but read out of the family. The story is also one in which family solidarity is demonstrated in vendettas (see below) and in the foundation and maintenance of monasteries.  The Giroie, like the story of Hugh IV of Lusignan and Count William V of Aquitaine, is set in a world in which noble families unite or fight with one another to increase their holdings, and in which the success of a family owed much to the favor or disfavor of a count.




VENDETTA AND VIOLENCE (by Dr. Paul Hyams, Cornell U.)

GIROIE v. MONTGOMERY (c. 1030 - c. 1093)


Orderic, ii. 24; iii. 134-6, 160; iv. 294.

Comment: Chibnall in Orderic, ii. 24-5, n. 3.


    Giroie had been an early benefactor of St. Evroul but was dead by around 1030. Count Gilbert of Brionne saw an opportunity to expamnd his lands at the family’s expense and moved in on the sons not yet of age and thus least able to defend themselves. They, however, mustered an effective support group able not merely to resist but to pursue the count back to his own territory and take Le Sap from him. The duke intervened to persuade Count Gilbert to let them keep the town ‘for a firmer peace’. This held for a few years only, until the count tried again and was murdered for his pains. Many of the disputed lands later came into the hands of Roger de Montgomery who held them for a quarter century, during which the Giroies always hated Roger’s cruel wife, Mabel. [Why? Any link to Brionne? How did the Montgomerys get the land?] (Orderic says that she was instrumental in depriving them of their paternal inheritance.) One night in 1077, Hugh and three of his brothers caught her relaxing in a bath inside one of her castles and beheaded her ‘to compensate for the loss of their patrimony’. The brothers escaped apparently amid local sympathy; many, indeed, applauded the ‘killing of the wild beast (Mabel)’.

     The Montgomery clan did not give up thoughts of vengeance. They suspected William Pantulf of complicity because of his long hostility against Mabel for depriving him of a castle and his long and close friendship with High Giroie. This may explain William’s withdrawal to Apulia, a plausible retreat for a man fearing that he was in line for further vengeance. On his return Earl Roger and his sons invaded his lands and sought to kill him. William fled to sanctuary at St. Evroul, fiercely protesting his innocence and offering proper legal purgation. This his enemies refused to accept, even though they could produce no convincing evidence of guilt. The matter was resolved only by William’s submission to an ordeal by the hot iron before a royal court at Rouen. His enemies attended fully armed and ready to execute the judgment personally by the sword. But God cleared him to hymns of praise all including Orderic and his fellow monks. Robert Giroie was still allegedly meditating vengeance against his enemies 1092-3.