William The Conqueror (1027-1087)

A Brief Introduction

William Beauclerc is generally known as William the Conqueror, and at times also known as William the Bastard. He was the first Norman King to have ruled in England, his reign lasting twenty-one years. Descended from Viking raiders, he was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and his mistress Herleva. William too, would become Duke of Normandy in 1035. His illegitimacy and youth had caused great difficulties for him when he succeeded his father. There was also a period of anarchy that plagued his first few years as Duke. During his childhood and on into his adolescence, members of the aristocracy of Normandy battled one another for control over the young William and for their own means as well. In 1047, almost ten years after he became duke, William was able to put an end to the rebellion and started to establish his authority over the duchy. The process of authority wouldn’t be completed until about 1060.

Sometime in the 1050s, William would marry Matilda of Flanders, providing him with a powerful ally in Normandy’s neighbor, Flanders. By the time of the marriage he’d been able to arrange the appointments of his supporters as bishops and abbots in the church of Normandy. When consolidating his power, William was able to expand his horizons. This lead to him securing control of another neighbor, the county of Maine, by 1062. Just four years later, William would take on England during the Norman Conquest of 1066. The remainder of his life he suffered struggles to hold power in England and over his continental lands. He had difficulties with his eldest son around the time as well.


So, what did William look like?

There is a picture at the top of this entry of what people believe he may have looked like, but there’s no authenticated portrait of him that has been found, Contemporary depictions of William are on the Bayeux Tapestry, and there’s also some on seals and coins that are designed to assert his authority. There are also some written descriptions of him that state that he was a burly man with a robust appearance. He also had been said to have a deep voice.

William was healthy for most of his life, until he was an older man, at which time he also had become quite fat. He was pretty touchy about his weight as well. On one occasion King Philip of France had compared William to a pregnant woman about to give birth. According to some accounts, William had become so dismayed with his size that he created his own version of a fad diet, he’d consume only wine and spirits for a period of time. The diet in the end did not work. William’s said to have been strong enough to draw bows that other men weren’t able to pull and had great stamina as well. Examination of his femur, the only one of his bones to still survive, showed he was around five feet, ten inches in height, which at that time was quite tall.


William’s Childhood

William was born in about 1027 or 1028. His father, Robert I, Duke of Normandy was the son of Richard II, also a Duke of Normandy. However, William’s mother did not come from such prominence. Her name was Herleva and she was the daughter of Fulbert of Falaise. Fulbert was probably a tanner or embalmer. She’d never marry Robert, and was a mistress of his when she became pregnant with William. Herleva would later marry Herluin Conteville, of whom she would go on to have two other sons with—Odo of Bayeux and Robert, the Count of Mortain. She’d also have a daughter of whose name we do not know. One of Herleva’s brothers, Walter, had become a supporter and protector of her son William during his minority. As William grew older he wouldn’t tolerate anyone disrespecting his mother. In fact, during a siege of Alencon in the late 1040s or early 1050s, residents had been said to have hung animal hides on their walls. They then mocked him for being the grandson of a tanner. To defend his mother’s honor, he had their hands and feet cut off. He also had a sister, Adelaide of Normandy, whose mother was also a mistress of Robert’s.


What about His Education?

The extent of the knowledge on William’s education is pretty unclear. There were two tutors that he had as a young duke, during the late 1030s and early 1040s that have been said to have instructed him. He wasn’t known to have been a patron of authors either, and there’s not much to say that he sponsored scholarships or intellectual activities either. He did however have one hobby, the sport of hunting, of which he enjoyed involving himself in very much. Orderic Vitalis had recorded that William had tried to learn how to read Old English later in his life, but he was unable to devote enough time to it and gave up on it quickly. He was in fact illiterate and spoke a dialect of French though and after his invasion of England he introduced the language to the English courts. This introduction of “Frankglais” would completely transform the English language, infusing it with new words. The courts would continue to speak the language for centuries to come.


William’s Father, Robert, Duke of Normandy

Robert had become Duke of Normandy on August 6th of 1027, succeeding his elder brother Richard III, who was not in power for very long, only becoming Duke in 1026. Robert and his brother had been at odds over their succession and Richard’s death occurred suddenly. Robert has been accused by some writers of killing his brother, which is quite plausible, but has never been proven. At the time of his brother’s death, Normandy was in distress. The nobles were frustrated with the Church, and Alan III of Brittany waged a war against the duchy, possibly so he could take control of the area. By 1031, Robert had gathered a great amount of support from the noblemen and many of them would also become prominent figures in his son’s life as well. These men included Robert’s uncle, Robert, archbishop of Rouen who’d originally opposed the duke Osbern, a nephew of Gunnor, the wife of Duke Richard I, and Count Gilbert of Brionne, and a grandson of Richard I. After he had ascended to the Dukedom, Robert had continued Norman support for the princes of England, Edward and Alfred, who had still been in exile in the north of France.

He may have been betrothed to a daughter of King Cnut, but no marriage actually occurred. It’s not clear either if William would’ve been skipped over in the line of succession if Robert had had a legitimate son. Earlier dukes had been illegitimate and William’s association with his father on ducal charters appear to indicate that he had been considered Robert’s most likely heir, regardless. In 1034, Robert had decided that he’d leave on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though some of his supporters had tried to talk him out of it. Robert convened a council in the beginning of 1035 of a group of Norman magnates who’d sweat fealty to his son William as his heir before he left on his journey. Robert would not return from the journey alive and died early in July at Nicaea on his way back home.


William, Duke of Normandy

William had faced many challenges upon his father’s death in becoming duke. These had included his illegitimacy as well as his youth. There’s evidence that he was just seven or eight when his father died. His great uncle, Archbishop Robert, had supported him greatly, as did the King of France, Henry I, who’d enable him to succeed his father. The support that was given to the English princes that were in exile to return to England in 1036 shows that William’s guardians were attempting to continue his father’s policies. However, in March of 1037, William’s great uncle would pass away as well. This would remove one of William’s great supporters. Conditions in Normandy would quickly fall into chaos.

The anarchy that began would last until 1047 and control over William was one of the priorities of those that competed for power. At first, Alan of Brittany had custody of the young duke, but when he had died in about 1039 Gilbert of Brionne took charge of William. Gilbert would be killed within three months and another guardian was appointed. This man’s name was Turchetil, and he too would be killed, not very long after the death of Gilbert. Then, another guardian was appointed, Osbern, he too was slain about three years later in William’s bedchamber while the young duke was sleeping. It had been said that Walter, William’s maternal uncle, was occasionally forced to hide young William in homes of peasants. The story could be an embellishment though. The historian, Eleanor Searle, thinks that William was raised with three of his cousins who had later become important in his career—William fitzOsbern, Roger Beaumont, and Roger of Montgomery. Even though many of the Norman nobles had engaged in their own private wars and tussles during William’s younger years, the viscounts still had acknowledged the ducal government, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy was very supportive of William.

Henry I of France
Depiction of Henry I

            King Henry I of France continued to support the young duke, but in later months of 1046 opponents of William’s came together to form a rebellion that would be centered in lower Normandy. The rebellion was led by Guy of Burgundy, who had been supported by Nigel, Viscount of Cotentin, and Ranulf, Viscount of Bessin. According to stories that could be legend, an attempt was made to seize William at Valognes, but he had escaped in the night, and had sought refuge with King Henry. Early the next year, Henry and William would return to Normandy and would be victorious in the Battle of Val-es-Dunes near Caen, though few details of the actual battle have been recorded. William of Poitiers had claimed that the battle was won mainly by William, but other earlier accounts claim that King Henry’s men and leadership also played a large part in the victory. William would resume his power in Normandy, and not long after promulgated the Truce of God through his duchy. This was an effort to limit warfare and violence by restricting days of the year on which fighting would be permitted. Although the battle marked a turning point in his control, it wasn’t the end of struggles for the upper hand over the nobility. From 1047 until 1054 continuous warfare broke out, with other small controversies occurring until 1060.

William’s next efforts were against Guy of Burgundy who’d retreated to his castle at Brionne and William would besiege. After a long effort, William succeeded in exiling Guy in 1050. William also would need to address the power that was growing for the Count of Anjou, Geffrey Martel. He joined with King Henry in a campaign against the count, this would also be the last known cooperation that the two would have together. They succeeded in capturing an Angevin fortress, but didn’t accomplish much else. Geoffrey had attempted to expand his authority into the county of Maine, especially once Hugh IV of Maine had died in 1051. Central to Maine’s control were the holdings of the family of Belleme, who had controlled the border of Maine and Normandy, as well as fortresses at Alencon and Domfort. Belleme’s overlord was the King of France, but Domfort was under the lordship of Geoffrey Martel and William was Alencon’s overlord. The Belleme family, whose lands were quite strategically placed between the three overlords, were able to play each of them against one another and secure virtual independence for themselves.

Upon the death of Hugh of Maine, Geoffrey Martel moved in on Maine, of which was contested by William and King Henry; eventually they’d succeeded in driving Geoffrey from the county, and while doing this, William would be able to secure the Belleme strongholds at Alencon and Domfort as well. He was also able to assert his overlordship over the family and compel them to act in Norman interests. In 1052, King Henry and Geoffrey Martel had a common cause against William at the same time as some of the Norman nobles who had begun to contest his power. Henry was probably motivated by his desire to keep his dominance over Normandy, which was being threatened by William’s growing mastery of the duchy. William was engaged in some military actions against his own nobles through the year of 1053, as well as with the new Archbishop of Rouen, Mauger. In 1054 King Henry and the nobles launched an invasion against William. Henry would lead the main push through Evreux, while Henry’s half-brother, Odo pushed to invade eastern Normandy.

William divided his forces into two units. The first he lead against King Henry. The other faced Odo’s forces. They were made up of some of William’s supporters, some of which included Robert, the Count of Eu; Walter Giffard, Roger Mortimer, and William Warenne. These men defeated the intruders at the Battle of Mortimer. While ending both invasions, the battle had allowed him to depose Mauger from his position in Rouen. Mortimer marked yet another turning point in William’s power, though his conflict with King Henry and the Count of Anjou continued until 1060. Henry and Geoffrey would lead another invasion to Normandy during William’s life, and the deaths of both men fortified the shift in balance of power for William in 1060.


William’s First and Only Love

William would marry Count Baldwin V of Flanders daughter, Matilda. The marriage had been arranged in 1049, but the Pope, Leo IX, had forbid the union at the Council of Rheims in October of that year. William would still marry Matilda, but not until sometime in the 1050s. It still may have not been sanctioned by the pope even then. Papal sanction of the marriage does appear to have happened at some point though because two monasteries were founded in Caen, one by William and one by Matilda. At first Matilda didn’t want anything to do with William. When he asked for Matilda’s hand, she declined, perhaps because of his illegitimacy or her entanglement with another man. According to a legend, William had tackled Matilda in the street one day, pulling her off her horse by her long braids. In any event, she consented to marry him at some point and the couple had ten children together before she died in 1083. When she passed away William went into a deep depression.

Matilda of Flanders
Depiction of Matilda of Flanders

            The marriage was important for William to fortify his status. Flanders was one of the more powerful of French territories, with ties to the French royals and the German emperors. Contemporary writers had considered the marriage to have been one of successful companionship. The couple appears to have been quite affectionate towards one another and there are also no signs that he was ever unfaithful to her. This was unusual for the time, as most monarchs would take mistresses. Medieval writers criticize William for his greed and cruelty, but his personal piety was praised by contemporaries.


What Kind of Government Did William Run?

William’s Norman government was similar to the one that existed under his predecessors. It was a fairly simple administration that was built around the ducal household. This household had consisted of a group of officers of which stewards, butlers, and marshals were included. He would have travelled constantly around his duchy. While on his travels he would confirm charters and collect revenues. Most of his income came from ducal lands along with tolls and few taxes as well. The income had been collected by the chamber, which was also a household department.

He had both made and kept close relationships with the church, and took part in church councils and several appointments to the Norman episcopate, including the appointment of Maurilius as the Archbishop of Bouent. Another important appointment he made was that of his half-brother Odo as Bishop of Bayeux in about 1049. He also had relied on the clergy for advice. He’d given quite generously to the church from 1035 until he had gone to England in 1066. The Norman aristocracy had founded at least twenty new monastic houses, including the two of his in Caen. This was considered to have been a remarkable expansion of religious life in the duchy.


What Were His Concerns?

In 1051, King Edward of England had been childless, and so it appears that he had chosen William to succeed him to the English throne when it was his time to pass. So why William? He was the grandson of Edward’s maternal uncle, Richard II, another Duke of Normandy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, stated that William had visited England in 1051. This was possibly to secure his succession, but could’ve also been for him to attempt to secure aid for his troubles that he was going through in Normandy. Whatever Edward’s wishes, it was likely that any claim by William would be opposed. Godwin, the Earl of Wessex was a member of the most powerful family in England and Edward married his daughter in about 1043. It appears as though Godwin had been one of his main supporters to the throne. By 1050, relations between Edward and Godwin had become bitter, and then just a year later totally fell apart. This led Godwin and his family to be exiled from England. During his exile, Edward had offered the throne to William. Godwin would return a two years later with armed men and a settlement would be reached between Edward and Godwin. He was restored as earl and was returned his lands, he also replaced Robert of Jumieges as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Count Herbert II of Maine had passed away in 1062 and William, who’d betrothed his eldest son Robert to Herbert’s sister, Margaret, claimed the county through his son. The local nobility had resisted this claim, and he would invade the area and secure the control in 1064. William appointed a Norman to the bishopric of Le Mans a year later. He also allowed Robert Curthose (his son) to do homage to the new Count of Anjou, Geoffrey ‘The Bearded’. William’s western border was then secure, but his border with neighboring Brittany had remained unsecure and in 1064 he would invade. There’s not much known of this campaign. Its effect however, was to destabilize the area and force the duke Conan II to focus on internal problems rather than on expanding the area. Conan’s death occurred in 1066 and would allow William to secure his borders in Normandy further. He also benefited from the campaign by securing support of some Breton nobles who would go on to support him in his invasion of England in 1066.

Meanwhile, back in England, Earl Godwin had died in 1053, and his sons were increasing their power. Harold had succeeded to his father’s earldom and another of his sons, Tostig, became the Earl of Northumbria. His other sons were granted earldoms later on. Gyrth was made Earl of East Anglia in 1057 and Leofwine, the Earl of Kent sometime between 1055 and 1057. During this time Edward the Exile, son of Edmund ‘Ironside’ and grandson of Ethelred II had returned to England, and he too had been a contender to the throne.

Edward the Confessor
Depiction of King Edward of England

In 1065, Northumbria had revolted against Tostig and rebels had chosen Moarcar, the younger brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia, as their earl. To secure support of Edwin and Moarcar in his bid for the throne, Harold possibly supported the rebels and persuaded King Edward to replace Tostig with Moarcar. Tostig would go into exile in Flanders with his wife Judith. Edward became ill during this time and he would die on the 5th of January of 1066. It’s not really clear what had exactly happened at his deathbed. One story, derived from Vita Edwardi, a biography of Edward, claims his wife Edith; Harold; the Archbishop Stigand; and Robert FitzWimarc were in attendance and the king named Harold as his successor. Norman sources don’t dispute the fact that Harold was named as his successor either, but they declared his oath and Edward’s earlier promise couldn’t be changed upon his deathbed. Later English sources state that Harold had been elected as king by the clergy and the magnates of England.


Preparations Are Made For William’s Invasion of England

Harold was crowned on the 6th of January 1066 in Edward’s new, Westminster Abbey. His claim to the throne was not entirely secured however, as there were other claimants. One of those claimants could have been his brother Tostig who was in exile. King Harald Hardrada of Norway also had grounds for claim to the throne since he was the uncle and heir of King Magnus I, who had made a pact with Harchacnut in about 1040. If either Magnus or Harthacnut had died without heirs, the other would succeed. The last claimant was William of Normandy. King Harold Godwinson had, by this time, made most of his preparations for William’s impending invasion.

Harold’s brother, Tostig, had made probing attacks along the southern coast of England in May of 1066. He’d landed at the Isle of Wight using a fleet that was supplied by Baldwin of Flanders. Tostig appears to have only had a little support, and further raids into Lincolnshire and near the River Humber had been met with no more success, so he would retreat to Scotland. He had remained there for some time. According to Norman writer William of Jumieges, while Tostig had been probing around, William had sent an embassy to King Harold Godwinson to remind him of his oath to support his claim. As to whether this had actually happened is not clear. Harold would assemble an army and fleet to fight off William’s anticipated invasion. He would deploy troops and ships along the English Channel for most of the summer.

William of Poitiers described a council that was called by Duke William, in which the writer gives an account of a debate that had taken place among William’s nobles and supporters over whether to risk the invasion of England or not. There was some kind of formal assembly that had probably been held, but it’s not very likely that there was any debate that had taken place. This is due to the duke having already established his control over nobles and most of those that had assembled would’ve been anxious to secure their share of rewards from England’s Conquest. William of Poitiers had also said that the duke had obtained the consent of the Pope, Alexander II for the invasion, along with a papal banner. He also claimed that William had also secured the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV and King Sweyn II of Denmark as well. Henry was still a minor though and Sweyn was more likely to have supported Harold who could’ve helped him against the Norwegian king, so claims should only be treated with caution. Though Alexander did give his papal approval to the conquest after it had succeeded, no other sources have claimed that the support was given beforehand. Events afterwards, including the penance William performed and statements later made by popes, do lend some support to the claim of papal approval. To deal with Norman affairs, William had put the government of Normandy in the hands of his wife while he was away.

Through the summer, William would gather together an army and fleet in Normandy. Though William of Jumieges’s claim that the fleet had numbered 3,000 ships is an exaggeration, it was probably large, but mostly built from scratch. Even though William Poitiers and William Jumieges disagreed about where the fleet had been built they both agree it sailed from Valery-sur-Somme. The fleet carried a force that included troops from William’s own lands, but also mercenaries, allies, and volunteers from the areas of Brittany, northeastern France and Flanders. It also included smaller number from other parts of Europe. The army and fleet were ready by early August to set sail for England, but high winds kept the ships in Normandy until the late part of September. It is also likely that there were other reasons that they were delayed, including intelligence reports from England revealing Harold’s forces had been deployed along the coast. William would’ve preferred to wait to invade until he could make an unopposed landing. Harold would keep his forces on alert that entire summer, but with the arrival of the harvesting season he disbanded his troops on the 8th of September.

In that same month, Tostig and Harald Hardrada would invade Northumbria, defeating the local forces under Morcar and Edwin at the Battle of Fulford near York, King Harold had received word about the invasion and ended up marching his forces north, defeating the invaders and killing both Tostig and Hardrada before the end of the month, specifically on the 25th at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

William’s fleet finally set sail two days later and landed in England at Pevensey Bay on the 28th. William then moved to Hastings, just a few miles east, where he built a castle as a base for operations. From Hastings, he ravaged the interior and waited for Harold to return from the north. William had refused to explore any further from the sea, as it was his line of communication with Normandy.


The Battle of Hastings

After Harald Hardrada and Tostig were defeated, Harold left most of his army in the north, including Morcar and Edwin, and returned to the south with the remainder of his men to deal with the Norman invasion. He had probably learned of William’s landing while he was on his way back. Harold had stopped in London momentarily and was there for about a week before he marched to Hastings. He had travelled about twenty-seven miles each day, for the distance of about 200 miles. Although he had made an attempt to surprise William, the Norman scouts reported that the English had arrived. The exact events that had preceded the battle aren’t known and are somewhat obscure as well, with contradictions in accounts from multiple sources, all agree however that William had led his army from his castle and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken up a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (which today is Battle in East Sussex), about six miles from William’s castle in Hastings.

Hastings Beach
The Beach at Hastings in 2010. A little over 940 years after William would have been there.

    The battle actually began at about nine in the morning on the 14th of October and lasted the whole day, but while only a broad outline of the events is known, the exact events are obscure and again accounts are contradictory. Although the numbers of each side were about the same, William had both cavalry and infantry, of which include archers. Harold had only foot soldiers with only a few archers, if any at all. The English soldiers had formed up as a shield wall along the ridge and were very effective at first. William’s army was thrown back with heavy casualties. Some of his Breton troops had panicked and fled, and some English troops appear to have pursued the fleeing men until they too were attacked and destroyed by the Norman cavalry. During the Breton’s flight there were rumors flying around among the Normans that William had been killed, but he succeeded in rallying them. Two further Norman retreats were “feigned”, to once again draw the English into a pursuit and then exposed them to repeated attacks by the Norman cavalry. The sources that are available are more confused about the events that afternoon, however, it does appear that Harold was killed, how exactly differs amongst sources. William of Jumieges claimed that he was killed by William. The Bayeux Tapestry had claimed his death by an arrow to the eye. In the 12th century there are stories that he was slain by an arrow wound to the head.

The day after the battle, Harold’s body was identified, either through his armor or marks that were on his body. The English that had died, including some of Harold’s brothers and housecarls, were left there on the battlefield. Gytha, his mother, offered victorious William the weight of her son’s body in gold in exchange for the custody of her son’s body, but William would refuse her offer. He had ordered that Harold’s body be thrown into the sea, but if it was it’s not clear. There is a later claim by Waltham Abbey, which was founded by Harold, that his body was secretly buried there.


Becoming King of England

Following his victory at Hastings, William might have hoped that the English would surrender, but they didn’t. Instead, some of the clergy and magnates had nominated Edgar the Atheling as king, though their support for him wasn’t very strong. After waiting for a short time, William had secured Dover, parts of Kent, and Canterbury, while he sent a force to capture Winchester, of which the royal treasury had been. Securing these places would secure William’s rear areas and also his line of retreat to Normandy, if he had needed to do so. William then moved on to Southwark, across the River Thames from London, which he’d reached in the latter part of November. He then pushed on through the south and west of London, burning along the way. He finally had crossed the River Thames at Wallingford in early December. There, Archbishop Stigand had submitted to William, who then moved on to Berkhamsted not long after. Edgar the Atheling, Morcar, Edwin, and Archbishop Ealdred would also surrender. William then sent his forces into London with orders to construct a castle and he was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of 1066.


Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey


William remained in England after his coronation. The remaining earls—Edwin (of Mercia), Morcar (of Northumbria), and Waltheof (of Northampton)—were confirmed in their lands and kept their titles. Waltheof would marry William’s niece, Judith; and a marriage between Edwin and one of William’s daughters was also proposed. Edgar the Etheling also appears to have succeeded to lands. Families of Harold and his brothers lost their lands, as did some others who had fought about William at Hastings. By March, William secured enough of England to return to Normandy, but he took with him Stigand, Morcar, Edwin, Edgar, and Waltheof. He would leave his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, in charge of his new king, along with another influential supporter of his, William fitzOsbern, the son of his former guardian. Both were also given the titles of Earl, fitzOsbern would be Earl of Hereford and Odo was Earl of Kent. Although two Normans were overall in charge, William kept many of the native English sheriffs. Once he was back in Normandy he went to Rouen and the Abbey of Fecamp, and then to the consecration of new churches at two Norman monasteries.

While he was back at home, a former ally, Eustace, Count of Boulogne, invaded Dover but was pushed back. English resistance also began. Ealdric ‘The Wild’ had attacked Hereford and there were revolts at Exeter, where Harold’s mother Gytha was a focus of the resistance. FitzOsbern and Odo had found it hard to control the native people and started to build castles to maintain their hold. William then returned to England in December of 1067 and marched on Exeter, besieging it. The town held out for eighteen days though and after it fell he built a castle to secure his control. Meanwhile, Harold’s sons were raiding the southwest of England from a base in Ireland. Their forces had landed near Bristol but were defeated by Eadnoth. By Easter of the next year, William was at Winchester, he was then joined by his wife who would be crowned in May of 1068.

William’s efforts to secure England were made by ordering many castles, keeps, and mottes be built, among them was the White Tower, the central tower of the Tower of London. The fortifications had given the Normans a safe place to retreat to when they were threatened with a rebellion. They’d also allow garrisons to be protected while they occupied the countryside. Early castles were made simply of earth and timber, but later they’d be made of stone.

At first most of the newly settled Normans had kept household knights and wouldn’t settle their retainers with fiefs of their own. The knights would gradually be granted their own lands, which was a process that would be known as subinfeudation. William also had required the new magnates to contribute fixed quotas of knights towards military campaigns as well as to castle garrisons. This was a way to organize a military for departure from the pre-Conquest English practice of basing military on territorial units such as the hide.

By the time that William had passed away, most native Anglo-Saxon aristocracy had been replaced by Norman and other continental magnates. Not all of the Normans who’d gone with William on the Conquest in 1066 would acquire lands in England. Some of them were reluctant because England had not always appeared to be pacified. Some newly rich Normans came from William’s close family or from the upper Norman nobility, others were from humble backgrounds. William granted some land to his continental followers from either one or more specific Englishmen; at other times he granted a compact grouping the lands previously held by many different Englishmen to one Norman follower. This was often done to allow for consolidation of lands around a strategically placed castle.

Medieval chronicler William Malmesbury had said that William had taken control of and depopulated many miles of land, to be exact thirty-six parishes, turning it into the royal New Forest so as to support his passion for hunting. Modern-day historians have come to the conclusion that the depopulation of the area was greatly exaggerated. Most of the lands were poor agricultural lands and both archaeological and geographic studies have shown that the area was likely sparsely settled when it was changed into a royal forest. William was known to have loved hunting and introduced the forest law into areas of the country so as to regulate who could hunt and what could be hunted.


English Resist William

In 1068, Edwin and Morcar revolted, with support from Gospatric. The chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, states that Edwin’s reasons were that the marriage proposed between himself and William’s daughter hadn’t taken place, but there are other reasons as well, probably of which included the increasing power of William fitzOsbern in Herefordshire, which had affected his power. William marched on his lands and built a castle at Warwick. Edwin and Morcar had surrendered but William continued on to York, building castles there and Nottingham before returning to the south. On the journey south he started to construct castles at Lincoln, Huntingdon, and Cambridge. William would place his supporters in charge of the new fortifications, then returned to Normandy in late 1068.

Early the following year, Edgar the Etheling arose in revolt and attacked York. Even though William had returned to York and built another castle, Edgar had remained free, and in autumn he had joined up with King Sweyn of Denmark. The Danish king brought a large fleet to England and had not only attacked York but Exeter and Shrewsbury as well. York would be captured. Edgar would be proclaimed king by his supporters, but William responded quickly, ignoring another revolt against him in Maine. He would symbolically wear his crown in the ruins of York on Christmas Day of 1069, and he then proceeded to buy off the Danes. He marched to the River Tees, ravaging the countryside along the way. Edgar lost most of his support and fled to Scotland where King Malcolm III was married to Edgar’s sister, Margaret. Waltheof, who had joined the revolt as well, surrendered, along with Gospatric, and both were allowed to keep their lands. William however, was not finished. He marched over the Pennines during winter and defeated the remaining rebels that were in Shrewsbury before he had built a castle at Chester and at Stafford. This campaign is usually known as the “Harrying of the North”, it was over by April of 1070, when William would wear his crown ceremonially for Easter at Winchester.



Although Sweyn had promised to leave England, he’d return in the spring of 1070. Upon his return he raided along the Humber and East Anglia, moving towards the Isle of Ely, where he had joined up with Hereward ‘The Wake’. Hereward’s forces would attack, capture, and loot Peterborough Abbey. William secured the departure of Sweyn and his fleet that same year and would allow him to return to the continent to deal with his troubles in Maine, where the town of Le Mans had revolted a year earlier. Another concern of William’s was the death of Count Baldwin VI of Flanders in July of 1070. This led to a succession crisis. The Count’s widow, Richilde, began ruling for the couple’s sons Arnulf and Baldwin and her rule was contested by her deceased husband’s brother, Robert. She had proposed to marry William fitzOsbern, who had been in Normandy during the time, and he would accept. After he had been killed in February of 1071 in the Battle of Cassel, Robert became count. He was against William’s power on the continent, and so the Battle of Cassel not only lost an important supporter for William, but also upset his balance of power in Northern France.

In 1071, William defeated the last rebellion against him in the north. Earl Edwin was betrayed by his own men and was killed, while William had built a causeway to subdue the Isle of Ely, where Hereward and Morcar were hiding. Hereward would escape, but Morcar was captured, his earldom was taken away, and he was thrown into prison. The next year, William invaded Scotland and defeated Malcolm, who had recently invaded the northern part of England. William and Malcolm would agree to peace with the signing of the Treaty of Abernethy. Malcolm probably gave his son Duncan as a hostage as part of the agreement. Another stipulation could have been the expulsion of Edgar the Atheling from Malcolm’s court. William could then turn his attention to the mainland. He travelled back to Normandy in 1073 so he could deal with another invasion in Maine by Fulk le Rechin, Count of Anjou. William would set out on a campaign that was settled quickly, he seized Le Mans from Fulk’s forces. His power was now even more secure in the north of France. However, the new count of Flanders accepted Edgar the Atheling into his court. Robert also had married his half-sister, Bertha to the King of France, Philip I, who had been against any Norman power.

William would return to England so he could release his army from their service in 1073, but he would return to Normandy quickly and spent most of 1074 there. When William left England he left the country in the hands of his supporters, including Richard fitzGilbert and William Warenne. William’s ability to leave during that entire year was a sign that he had felt that his control of the kingdom was secure enough. While he was away, Edgar Atheling had returned to Scotland from Flanders. The French king, seeking a focus for those that had been opposed to William, proposed that Edgar be given the castle of Montreuil-sur-Mer on the Channel, which would give Edgar a strategic advantage against William. Edgar had been forced to submit to him not long after that and returned to William’s court. Thwarted in his attempt, Philip turned his attentions to Brittany and led a revolt in 1075.

During William’s absence from England, Ralph de Gael, the Earl of Norfolk and Roger de Breteuil, Earl of Hereford, had conspired to overthrow William in what would be known as the “Revolt of the Earls”. Ralph was partially a Breton and spent a good majority of his life, prior to 1066, in Brittany where he had still had lands. Roger was a Norman and the son of William fitzOsbern, but he inherited less authority than his father had held.

The exact reason for the “Revolt of the Earls” is not clear. It was however started at the wedding of Ralph to a relative of Roger. Another earl, Waltheof, even though he was one of William’s favorites, was also involved in the revolt. Ralph would request Danish aid for the revolt as well. William had stayed in Normandy while his men in England quashed the uprising. Roger was not able to leave his stronghold in Herefordshire because of William’s supporters, and Ralph was stuck in Norwich Castle for the same reason. Norwich was besieged and surrendered with the garrison allowed to go to Brittany. Meanwhile the Danish king’s brother, Cnut, had arrived in England with a fleet of 200 ships, but he was too late, Norwich had already surrendered. The Danes then raided along the coast before returning home. William came back to England late in 1075 to deal with the Danish threat, leaving his wife in charge of Normandy. He’d celebrate Christmas at Winchester and dealt with the aftermath of the rebellion at that time as well. Roger and Waltheof were put in prison, but Waltheof would be executed in May of 1076. Before Waltheof’s death, William returned to Europe where Ralph continued with the rebellion of Brittany.

Ralph had secured control of the castle at Dol and in September of 1076, William would go to Brittany and attack the castle. King Philip of France defeated William at Dol and forced him to retreat back to Normandy. This would be the first defeat for William in a battle, but it did little to change anything. Then an Angevin attack on Maine had occurred in 1076, with Count Fulk le Rechin being wounded in the unsuccessful attack. More serious however, was the retirement of Simon de Crecy, Count of Amiens, to a monastery. Before he had become a monk, Simon handed his county of the Vexin over to King Philip. The Vexin was a buffer state between Normand and Philip’s French lands and Simon had been a supporter of William’s. William was able to secure a peace with Philip in 1077 and secured a truce as well with Count Fulk in late 1077 or early 1078.

Still more trouble would loom for William. This time it was between his son Robert and himself. Orderic Vitalis describes it as starting off with a quarrel between Robert and his two younger brothers, William and Henry. A story was also included that the quarrel started when William and Henry threw water at Robert, it’s more likely that Robert was just feeling powerless. Orderic also relates that he’d previously demanded control of Maine and Normandy and had been turned down. The trouble of 1077 resulted in Robert leaving Normandy with a band of young men, many of whom were the sons of William’s supporters. The men went to the castle at Remalard, where they would raid into Normandy. The raids were supported by many of William’s enemies and he would immediately attack them and drive them from Remalard. King Philip, however, gave them the castle at Gerberoi, where they’d join up with new supporters. William then attacked Gerberoi in January of 1079. After three weeks, forces left the castle and managed to take the besiegers by surprise. William was unhorsed by his son and was only saved from death by an Englishman. His forces were then forced to lift the siege, and the king went back to Rouen. By the 12th of April 1080, he and Robert had reached an accommodation, with William once more affirming that Robert would receive Normandy when he died.

Word of William’s defeat in Gerberoi stirred up difficulties in northern England. In August and September of 1079, King Malcolm raided south of the River Tweed, destroying land between River Tees and the Tweed in a raid that lasted almost a month. The lack of Norman response appears to have caused the Northumbrians to grow restless, and in spring of 1080 they would rebel against the rule of Walcher, the Bishop of Durham and Earl of Northumbria. The bishop was killed on the 14th of May 1080 and William sent out his half-brother Odo to deal with the rebellion. He’d depart Normandy in July of 1080 and in autumn his son Robert was sent on a campaign against the Scots. Robert raided into Lothian and made Malcolm agree to terms that built a fortification at Newcastle-on-Tyne while returning to England. For Christmas the king was in Gloucester and in 1081 in Winchester for Whitsun, ceremonially wearing his crown to both occasions. A papal embassy arrived in the country at the time and asked for William to do fealty for his new nation. William would reject their wishes.

Also in that year, William would visit Wales. Both English and Welsh sources differ on his reasons, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says he had visited for a military campaign and the Welsh record it as a pilgrimage to St. Davids to honor Saint David. William’s biographer, David Bates argued that the Welsh explanation is more likely. He explains that the balance of power had shifted around the time in Wales and William would’ve wanted to take advantage of the circumstance so as to extend his power. By the end of the year, he was back in mainland Europe dealing with some disturbances in Maine. He’d lead an expedition to Maine, but the papal legate had negotiated a settlement with him.


Taxation and the Domesday Book

After 1066, William didn’t make an attempt to combine his separate domains into one unified kingdom, with one set of laws. His seal after the Conquest, of which six impressions still survive, was made for him and had stressed his role as king, while it had separately mentioned his role as duke. When William was in Normandy, he acknowledged that he’d owed fealty to the French king, but when in England no such acknowledgment was made. There’s further evidence that the various parts of his lands were considered separate. The administrative machinery of Normandy, England, and Maine still existed, separate from other lands, with each retaining its own forms. For example, England continued with its use of writs, this wasn’t known in mainland Europe. Also the charters and documents that were produced for government in Normandy had differed in formulas from those that were produced back in England.

William took over an English government that had been much more complex than the Norman system. England was divided by shires, which were further divided into hundreds. Each shire was administered by a royal official, a sheriff, who had the status as a Norman viscount. A sheriff would be responsible for royal justice and collecting the royal revenue. To oversee William’s expanded domain he had been forced to travel even more than he had to as a duke. He’d cross back and forth between mainland Europe and England at least nineteen times between 1067 and the time of his death. William spent most of his time in England between the Battle of Hastings and 1072, and after would spend most of his time in Normandy. The government was still centered on William’s household; when he was in one part of his realms, decisions would be made for other parts of his domains and transmitted through a communication system that used letters and other documents. He also had appointed deputies who would make decisions when he was absent, especially if it was to be a long amount of time. Usually this person was a member of his close family—frequently his half-brother, Odo, or his wife Matilda. Sometimes deputies were also appointed to deal with specific issues.

William would continue the collection of Danegeld, which was a tax on lands. This was an advantage for William, as it was the only universal tax that had been collected at the time by western European rulers. A Danegeld was an annual tax that was based on the value of landholdings, and it could be collected at different rates. Most years would see the rate at two shillings per hide, but in times of crisis, it could be increased to as much as six shillings. Coinage between various parts of his domains had continued to be minted in different cycles and styles. Coinage in England were generally of a high silver content, with high artistic standards and had been required to be reminted every three years. Also in England, no other coinage would be allowed. However, in mainland Europe, other coinage was considered to be legal tender. There is also no evidence that many English pennies were circulating in Normandy, which shows little attempt to integrate the monetary systems of England and Normandy.

Besides a taxation, William’s landholdings through England had strengthened his rule. As King Edward’s heir, he had control of the former royal lands. He also kept control over many of the lands of Harold and his family. This made him the largest secular landowner in the country by a wide margin.

During Christmas of 1085, William ordered a compilation of a survey of the landholdings that were held by, not just himself, but also by his vassals throughout the kingdom, being organized by counties. This would result in a work that would be known as the Domesday Book. The listings for each county gives the holdings of each landholder, grouped by owners. Listings described the holding, who owned the land before the Conquest, its value, what the tax assessment would be, and usually the number of peasants, ploughs, and any other resources the holding had. Towns would be listed separately. All English counties that were south of the River Tees and River Ribble were included, and the whole work seems to have been most of the way completed by the 1st of August 1086. This is when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that William had received the results and that all the chief magnates swore the Salisbury Oath. This Oath was a renewal of their oaths of allegiance. William’s exact motivation for the ordering of the survey is not known, but it most likely had several purposes, such as making a record of feudal obligations and justifying increased taxation.

William’s Final Years

William’s actions from 1082 to 1084 are cloudy. According to Bates this probably meant that not much had occurred during this time that would have been worthy to have taken note of. William had still been in continental Europe though and in 1082 he would order the arrest of his half-brother, Odo. The reasons for this are not clear either, and there are no records stating the reason for the quarrel. Orderic Vitalis later had recorded that Odo had made an attempt to persuade some of William’s vassals to join him on an invasion of the southern part of Italy. This was considered to be tampering with William’s authority over his vassals, a thing that he would not have tolerated. Even though Odo had remained in prison for the rest of William’s reign, his lands were not seized from him.

In 1083, more difficulties arose for William. A rebellion by Hubert Beaumont-au-Maine had started in 1084. Hubert was attacked in his castle at Sainte-Suzanne by William’s men for at least two years, but he’d eventually made peace with him and was restored to his favor. William was in Normandy for Easter of that year, he may have also travelled back to England before that time so as to collect Danegeld that had been assessed for the year as well as for the defense of England against an invasion by King Cnut IV of Denmark. Although the English and Norman forces had stayed on alert on into 1086, the threat of an invasion was quashed when Cnut died in July of 1086.

Towards the end of 1086 William had left England. After he arrived in continental Europe he married his daughter Constance to Alan Fergant. Alan was Duke of Brittany and marrying Constance gave William the opportunity to further his policy of seeking allies against the French kings. William’s son Robert was still an ally of the French king, Philip I, and appears to have been active in stirring up trouble, enough so that William led an expedition against the French Vexin in July of 1087. While he seized Mantes, he either fell ill or was injured by the pommel of his saddle. He was taken to the priory of Saint Gervase at Rouen, where he died on the 9th of September 1087. The knowledge of the exact events before his death are confusing because there are two separate accounts as to what happened. Orderic Vitalis preserves a long account, complete with speeches made by many of the principals, but this is likely more an account of how a king should die rather than what actually happened. The other, by De Obitu Willelmi, or On the Death of William, has been shows to be a copy of two 9th century accounts with names that have been altered.


William’s Successors and Burial

William left his dukedom of Normandy to Robert, and his English kingdom was given to his second surviving son, William, upon the assumption that he’d become king. His youngest son, Henry, received money. After entrusting England to his second son, the elder William had sent the younger back to England on the 7th or 8th of September, bearing a letter to Archbishop Lanfranc that ordered him to aid the new king. Other requests included gifts to the Church and money to be distributed to the poor. William had also ordered that all of his prisoners should be released, including his half-brother Odo.

Disorder had also followed his death. Everyone who’d been at his deathbed left the body at Rouen and hurried away to attend to their own affairs. Eventually the clergy of Rouen arranged for his body sent to Caen, where he had desired to be buried in his foundation of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes. The funeral, of which was attended to by the bishops and abbots of Normandy, as well as his youngest son, Henry, was disturbed by the assertion of a citizen of Caen who’d alleged that his family had been illegally despoiled by the land on which the church had compensated. After hurried consultations of the allegation were shown to be true, and the man was compensated a further indignity had occurred. When William’s body was lowered into his tomb, it was too large for the paces and when the attendants forced it into the tomb it had burst, spreading a repulsive odor throughout the church.


William the Conqueror tomb

William’s Tomb as it is Today


William’s grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a Latin inscription that dates back to the early 19th century. The tomb has been disturbed several times since 1087, the first being in 1522 when it was opened on orders from the papacy. The intact body was restored to the tomb at the time, but 40 years later, during the French Wars of Religion, the grave was again opened and William’s bones were scattered and lost, except for one of his thigh bones. The lone relic was reburied eighty years later with a new marker. The marker would be replaced one hundred years later with a more elaborate monument. William’s tomb was again destroyed during the French Revolution, but was eventually replaced with the current marker.


William’s Legacy

The immediate consequence of William’s death was a war between his sons, Robert and William, over control of England and Normandy. Even after the younger William’s death in 1100 and succession of his youngest brother Henry as king, Normandy and England remained contested over between the brothers, until finally Robert was captured by Henry at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106. The difficulties over succession led to a loss of authority in Normandy, with the aristocracy taking most of the power back that they lost to William ‘The Conqueror’. His sons also lost most of their control over Maine, which revolted in 1089 and managed to remain mostly free of Norman influence from then on.

The impact on England of William’s conquest was profound. There were changes made to the church, aristocracy, culture, and language of the country, which have persisted to modern times. The Conquest had also brought the kingdom into closer contact with France and forged ties between France and England that would last throughout the Middle Ages. Another consequence of the invasion was the destruction of formerly close ties between England and Scandinavia. His government combined elements of the English and Norman systems into a new one that would lay the foundation for the later medieval English kingdom. How abrupt and far-reaching those changes were is still in debate among historians, with some, such as Richard Southern claiming that his Conquest was the single most radical change in European history between the Fall of Rome and the 20th century. Others, such as H. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayles, saw the changes brought about as much less radical than what Southern suggests. The historian Eleanor Searle describes William’s Conquest as “a plan that no ruler but a Scandinavian would have considered”.

Even before his passing, William’s reign had caused a historical controversy. William of Poitiers had written glowingly of William’s reign and its benefits, but the obituary notice for William in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle condemns William with harsh terms. In the years since his Conquest, politicians and other leaders have used him and the events of his reign to paint a picture of political events throughout English history.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, Archbishop Matthew Parker saw the Conquest as having corrupted a purer English Church, which Parker attempted to restore. During the 17th and 18th centuries some historians and lawyers saw William’s reign as imposing a “Norman yoke” on the native Anglo-Saxons. This was an argument that continued in the 19th century with further elaborations along nationalistic lines. These controversies have led to William being seen by some either as one of the creators of England’s greatness or as inflicting one of the greatest defeats in English history. Others have viewed him as an enemy of the English constitution, or alternatively as its creator.


William is a relative of millions of people alive today. He is rumored to be a distant relative of at least 25% of the English population of the United Kingdom today, and is also a relative to many Americans with British ancestry. Any of the monarchs of Great Britain that were in power after William are descended from him, including today’s Queen Elizabeth II. He is my 26th great grandfather and you never know he could be your grandfather too.



Works Cited




The Beach at Hastings Photograph: taken by Christina Siceloff

 Westminster Abbey Photograph: taken by Christina Siceloff

all other photos can be found via bing.com search results

4 thoughts on “William The Conqueror (1027-1087)”

  1. This is a very complete survey of William’s life, i noyed you are following Truelight now and I’d like to send you an ebook( PDF) on family history if you want it, My email is jsbuttery2yahoo.ca
    Let me know yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for an intelligent and concise overview of William, and the invasion of England. 1066 remains one of those dates in our history that everyone knows. Whether it worked out better for us in the long run, we will never know. We were left with some fantastic historical monuments though, including the castles and churches.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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