William the Conqueror – King of England
Duke William of Normandy was known by several titles and nicknames throughout his life. William the Lame, William the Bastard, and William the Norman; yet none of these names would carry as much power and truth as the moniker the world knows him by...William the Conqueror. William’s father was Duke Robert; Robert was unmarried but had an ongoing love affair with an Anglo-Norman woman at the Norman court named Herleva (Arletta). The fact that William’s parents were never married would prove an obstacle for William as a young man trying to fill his father’s role as Duke of Normandy. William was the quintessential Norman and as Norman nobility and a Norman warrior, there was the weighty expectations of history William had to live up to...or surpass.
Viking raiders had been settling an area along northern coast of France since the 870’s, mixing with and living alongside the native Frankish inhabitants. In 910 Ce, an infamously war-like Viking Jarl named Hrólfr (Rollo in Latin) assembled a small army with the intention of taking the English Channel coast of France. The contingent of Rollo’s Viking raiders who ultimately settled what would become Normandy included Norsemen like the Danes, Norwegians, Norse–Gaels from Ireland, Norse-Scots from the Orkney islands, Swedes, and Anglo-Danes from the Danelaw in England which was effectively under Viking occupation. The Duchy of Normandy was founded in 911 Ce as a nominal vassal to the Kingdom of West Francia. It was established by the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte which was an accord between Charles III, king of West Francia and the famed Viking leader Rollo. The treaty offered Rollo and his men Frankish (French) lands between the river Epte and the Atlantic coast in exchange for their protection against further Viking raids of Frankish territory.The area of initial control by Rollo corresponds to the northern part of present day Upper Normandy south to the river Seine. Rollo’s new Viking Duchy was situated in the former Frankish kingdom of Neustria. Rollo and his immediate circle of men would marry native Frankish Christian women; as men often do when their wives are of another faith, Rollo and his men converted to Christianity.
Generations of assimilation and marriage to native Frankish and Romano-Gallic people in region gave way to the descendants of Rollo and his Norsemen integrating the Carolingian based society of France into their own Norse culture. A distinct Norman cultural and ethnic identity began to take shape in the first half of the 10th century. Exotic locales such as Sicily, Naples, and Jerusalem would all be ruled over at some point by a Norman monarch. By the time of Duke Robert and William’s era in the early 1020’s, the Normans had become a French speaking, Christianized (Catholic), Franco-Norse people who adhered to the feudal system in operating their society. Interestingly, the English word Norman comes from the medieval French word Normaund, which translates as North-man, a clear reference to the Norman ethnic origins in Scandinavia.
William was born at Falaisle castle in the year 1028 sometime in November or December. William’s illegitimate status and his youth caused many problems for him after he succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy in 1035, not yet aged 10. For most of William’s childhood and early teen years the Norman aristocracy and their allies plotted, fought, and murdered each other for control of the ‘child Duke’. 1047 was a watershed year for Duke William; with the support of French king Henry I, William was able to put down a rebellion, thus establishing his authority over the Duchy. This consolidation of power in Normandy was a process of near constant warfare for William that was not complete until about 1060. This period of political instability and combat made William into a formidable warrior, brilliant tactician, and a highly competent leader of men.
William married Matilda of Flanders in the early 1050’s; this arrangement was as much a political union as it was out of genuine love for Matilda. The marriage alliance would provide William with a powerful ally in the eastern county of Flanders (now in modern day Belgium). Duke William was able to secure the appointment of his supporters and allies into key posts within the Roman Catholic Church in Normandy. Powerful clerical offices such as Bishops and Abbotts were filled by William’s men. His consolidation of power allowed him to expand his political and military dominance over the whole of northern France and by 1062 William was able to assume control over the neighboring county of Maine to Normandy’s south.
William is Promised England’s Throne
By the late 1040’s, across the channel in the now united Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England, the question of who would succeed the childless Edward the Confessor on the English throne would become a contentious issue that would lead to war. William was the first cousin-once removed of King Edward of England. King Edward’s maternal uncle was none other than Duke Richard II of Normandy; Duke Richard II just happened to be William’s paternal grandfather. It would seem that in 1051 Edward the Confessor promised the English throne to his cousin William in 1051. Whatever King Edward actually desired or agreed to would be irrelevant at any rate; Godwin, the Earl of Wessex was the most powerful man in England outside of the King. Earl Godwin would oppose any claimant to the English throne that was not to his satisfaction. During a brief falling out between Earl Godwin and King Edward, Godwin was exiled and it was during this short lived exile that Edward agreed to make William the heir to the English throne. Godwin would return to England in 1052 with an army, as a result, King Edward and Godwin resolved their personal dispute and the king returned the money, lands, titles, and property which had been taken from the Godwin family. Godwin and his family’s status were restored in full.
The Earl Godwin died in 1053 and his eldest son Harold took up the mantel as Earl of Wessex with Godwin’s other sons gaining lordships in North Umbria, Kent, and East Anglia. While en route to Normandy in 1064 on a diplomatic mission for King Edward, Harold was captured by one of Duke William’s rebellious vassals. William paid Harold’s ransom, whereupon William took Harold on campaign against Brittany. It was during William’s invasion of Brittany that Harold Godwin swore an oath in which he renewed King Edward’s desire for the English throne to go to William. Moreover, William states that Harold promised to support his claim to the English throne. This oath and Harold’s perceived violation of it would become the core of William’s argument to invade England. Most historians and arm-chair scholars disagree on the validity of the ‘oath’ claim made by Norman chroniclers well after the fact.
William is Betrayed
On January 6, 1066 one day after Edward the Confessor’s death, Harold Godwin was elected King of England. The English practiced the election of kings; a Witan was convened and they elected Harold Godwin as king. The Witan (conference of nobles) was a holdover from ancient Anglo-Saxon political tradition. Harold knew that Duke William would be outraged and made defence arrangements accordingly; he deployed troops and ships in the south of England in anticipation of a Norman invasion. Events in 1066 would unfold quickly after Godwin’s coronation as king of England. William proceeded carefully, making sure to plan for every contingency. Initially he took steps to secure the Duchy of Normandy militarily. Next, he sought to acquire international and church support for his invasion of England. He held a war council with his leading nobles where he gave special authority to his wife Matilda and son Robert to govern Normandy in his absence. William then appointed key supporters to important positions in the government’s administration and within the army. Seeking the churches blessing, William petitioned the Vatican and received the blessing of Pope Alexander II. Finally, he would make appeals for volunteers to join his army of invasion, he was very persuasive and managed to garner hundreds recruits from outside Normandy. Tostig, King Harold Godwin’s exiled brother, raided England in May of 1066 but suffered defeat at the hands of one of Harold’s allies.
In September Tostig joined King Harald III Hardraade of Norway in an invasion of the Northumbrian coast of England. King Godwin was forced to quickly move the bulk of his army hundreds of miles north to head off his brother and King Hardraade before they marched south. By August, Duke William had gathered his army and fleet at the mouth of the Dives River but adverse wind conditions held the fleet in place. The delay proved an important benefit for William; on September 8 1066, King Godwin was forced by conscription laws to release the militia of common folk and farmers he had assembled in January to defend the southern coastline. On September 27 1066, the wind turned in William’s favour and the Norman army set sail for the south-eastern coast of England with a force of 4,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. The following morning they landed in England and seized the towns of Pevensey and Hastings without bloodshed.
Biography of William
The Battle of Hastings
Meanwhile, in the north of England, King Harold Godwin defeated and killed his brother Tostig along with King Hardraade at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York on September 25, 1066. Despite taking heavy losses and his army running on fumes, King Godwin gave them one night’s rest and the following afternoon ordered his men south on a gruelling high speed march of nearly 300 miles. Godwin’s exhausted army slogged through the rain, sleet, mud, chilling winds, and general drudgery of an English Autumn; all in order to engage the Normans as fast as possible. On the night of October 13, King Godwin’s army emerged from the mists of The Great Andred Forest, but it was too late to push on to Hastings. Godwin chose to set up a defensive perimeter and give his men a couple days a well earned food and rest before pushing into the Norman positions at Hastings.
William was not going to allow Godwin to dictate where and when the fight took place; at sunrise on October 14, 1066- Duke William attacked Godwin’s army. The English phalanx held firm against William’s archers and cavalry. William’s cavalry briefly fled in the confusion as to why the English line wasn’t breaking. Godwin’s troopers broke their own line for the Normans; they foolishly gave chase against the Norman cavalry. William rallied his horsemen and they circled back on the English foot soldiers and slaughtered them. On no less than three occasions during the melee of Hastings, Duke William’s horsemen feigned a retreat, which in turn baited Godwin’s soldiers into giving chase; every time this occurred the English were killed by the Norman cavalry. The English force was being methodically cut down by Norman horsemen and archers over the course of the day.
King Harold Godwin’s loyal brothers were killed early on during the Battle of Hastings. As night approached, King Godwin was felled by an arrow to the eye. With King Godwin now dead and the exhausted army on the verge of complete annihilation, the English chose to give up within minutes of King Godwin’s death. The English had fought hard and fought well in spite of their condition following Stamford Bridge and their forced speed march south. There were very few men on Earth in 1066 that possessed the military skills and experience at warfare that Duke William had; he spent the vast majority of his life engaging in politics and war as matter of survival.
Battle of Hastings
William Becomes King of England
On Christmas Day 1066, Duke William of Normandy was crowned King William I at Westminster Abbey in London. He insisted on being adorned with the crown that sat upon Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwin’s heads. The Normans under King William would be the last foreign power to successfully invade England.
King William was a veteran ruler by the time he took the throne of England. In Normandy, he had replaced disloyal nobles and servants of the Duchy with his friends; he curbed private warfare and recovered usurped rights from those who opposed him. As king of England, he established firm rules defining the duties of his vassals, ministers, and advisors. He would not tolerate opposition from Bishops or Abbots nor would he entertain interference from the Pope, however, he did remain on good terms with Pope Alexander II and Pope Gregory VII. During William’s reign, church councils were frequently convened, in addition, the king presided over several Episcopal councils. He was supported in church affairs and clerical reforms by his pious friend Lanfranc, whom he made Archbishop of Canterbury. William replaced all the Anglo-Saxon Bishops of England with Normans keeping only Bishop Wulfstan of Dorchester as the sole Saxon church leader in the country. Furthermore, William and the Normans introduced the English to the medieval feudal system which mapped out how social classes, the church, government, law, and economics would be organized and run.
The military concepts of Knights, elite military orders, and cavalry warfare were all European innovations which Normans brought to England. King William would also order the construction of England’s first real castles, including the construction of the famed Tower of London. Built to impose Norman will over the English, the first castles were a type of public service announcement to the rest of England which said “submit or die”. The Latin based Romance language of French would begin to creep into English speech as a result of the Norman Conquest as well. French would enjoy a position as the language of status and education in the English royal court from 1066 well into the 19th century.
William left England early in 1067 but had to return to quell the northern rebellion which began in December that year. King William employed such brutality in putting down the uprising that medieval contemporaries were shocked at the scale of the death. William deployed a force of 4,000 with orders to kill everyone and burn everything. The campaign was known as “the harrying of the north”; it would leave deep cultural and demographic scars on northern England for centuries to come. The rebellion put an end to the English aristocracy and insured its replacement by Norman lords. Later, in an effort to secure England’s frontiers, William invaded Scotland in 1072 and Wales in 1081 establishing special defensive counties called ‘marches’ along the Scottish and Welsh borders.
King William I
William Returns to Normandy
During the final 15 years of his life, King William was more often in Normandy than England He was concerned with various crises involving the Duchy of Normandy. There was a five year period during which he did not visit his English kingdom at all. Aiming to negate the chances of a coupe d’état or rebellion in England whilst he was away, William brought most of the Anglo-Norman Barons with him to Normandy. He entrusted the government of England to church Bishops - whom he conveniently had appointed to their offices. His old friend Lanfranc was given a great deal of proxy authority in William’s name; including the authority to levy taxes, build castles, promote nobles, assign ministers, and raise an army in case of rebellion.
William was in the habit of returning to England only when it was necessary; such as his return in 1075 to deal with the aftermath of a rebellion by the Earls of Hereford and Norfolk. The situation with the Earl’s uprising was made more dangerous by the intervention of a Danish fleet. William was called back to England in 1082 to affect the arrest and imprisonment of his half brother Odo who had been plotting to take an Anglo-Norman army to Italy and make himself Pope. Later in the summer of 1082, William took oaths of fealty from all the important landowners in England at Salisbury. He returned once again in 1085 with a large army stop an invasion by King Canute IV of Denmark. The Danish invasion came to nothing when Canute died in 1086.
In November of 1086, William ordered the creation of an economic and territorial survey of England; he wanted to know exactly who owned what, how much, where it was, and how he could tax it. Homes, estates, animals, tools, weapons, currency, jewelry, precious metals and stones, building materials, furs, along with all manner of valuable goods were meticulously recorded in the Domesday Book. The name of the book refers to ‘doomsday’ – the day when men face the record to which there is no appeal. The book encompassed two volumes: the first summarizes records of all the counties except Essex, Norfolk, and Sussex, the second contains accounts of the other three counties. The books are now on display in The National Archives in Kew.
King William would become embroiled in a conflict with King Philip of France in 1087. William demanded the return of several towns back to Norman control following King Philip’s seizure of them the year prior. In July of 1087, William seized the French town of Mantes, however while the town burned he suffered an injury which would prove fatal. William was taken to a village outside of Rouen where he lay dying for five weeks. He was attended by of some of his half-brother Robert and his sons William Rufus and Henry. William was tempted to make his loyal son William Rufus his sole heir, but in typical calculating fashion, King William compromised. Normandy and county Maine went to Robert and the throne of England went to William Rufus. Henry was bestowed a sizeable amount of gold and silver with which he was to purchase land. King William died at dawn on September 9, 1087 at age 60. He was succeeded on the throne of England by his son William II (William Rufus) who would himself be replaced by William the Conqueror’s other son Henry.
The Norman dynasty in England, founded by William the Conqueror is the blood line by which all English monarchs trace their lineage and lay their claim to the throne upon. The Norman invasion of England was by far the most paradigm shifting, influential, and important event to occur on the isle of Britain in the last 1,000 years or so. Only the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans can claim to have altered that island’s culture in such an enormous way as to change the society completely.
Cawthorne, Nigel. Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. Metro Books. 2009.
Lewis, Brenda R. A Dark History: The Kings & Queens of England 1066 to the Present Day. Metro Books. 2005.
Young, Ryan. King William I "The Conqueror" : A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.
© 2016 Doug West