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William the Conqueror


William is the fellow who conquered England in 1066, for which he gained the nickname "the Conqueror," although England was not his only conquest. Nevertheless, it was the Norman conquest of England that forms a watershed event in English history and in the history of Europe in general.

The story itself is interesting, and its effects were far- reaching. This narrative concerns itself primarily with the actual conquest, with some pages devoted at the beginning to setting the scene, and several pages at the end discussing the immediate consequences of the the invasion.

Normandy in the 10th Century

Originally a part of Charlemagne's empire, Normandy was fairly wealthy, with lots of monasteries and small towns. Lying on the northern coast of France, it became a favorite and easy target for Vikings in the 9thc. It lost most of its monasteries and was not much of a prize when a Viking came to the King of the West Franks in 911 with a proposal.

The Viking was Rolf, a Dane with many men at his command. He offered to defend the coast against other Vikings in return for a title. And, naturally, he and his people would convert to Christianity. So, Rolf the Viking became Duke of Normandy, and the King of the West Franks breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The inhabitants were Vikings, but most people simply referred to them as the North Men. The land given to them took their name: Normandy. In both France and England, Norman is also a common first name.

The new duchy was a frontier land, filled with constant warfare. Viking raids continued, of course, but the Normans fought among themselves and with their neighbors. And Normandy became stronger, gathering territories and becoming one of the more powerful duchies in France. The Norman dukes owed allegiance to the King of the Franks, but the French king was a weak, shadowy figure in these years, and the dukes were essentially independent.

The state of things in the 10th century can be seen in the names of the dukes: William Longsword, for example, grandfather of the Conqueror. As with the kings of the day, the office of duke was no more powerful than the man who bore the title, and Normandy was fortunate to have several men who were strong.

England in the 11th Century

The Vikings hit England hard, too. The earliest raids date back to Charlemagne's day and continued without a break. Alfred the Great won his reputation in battles with the Danes. By the early 11th century, the Danes had won so thoroughly that there were actually two kings of England who were also kings of Denmark.

The second of these was Canute, who resided in England rather than in Denmark for much of his reign. The inhabitants of England were the ancient Celts, who now were found only in Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall; the Saxons, who had driven back the Britons in the 6th century; and the Danes, who had settled in the eastern third of the country. Of the three, the Saxons were the most numerous and it was Saxon kings who had ruled before the Danes arrived.

Saxon England was not a feudal state. The peasantry was made up of free farmers, plus slaves; the nobility were aristocrats but there were few cases of land in exchange for service. The Church was run mainly from the monastery, not the cathedral. The king was served by a national militia, plus his own retainers. Nobles fought alongside him only as allies, not as vassals. The country was poor and sparsely populated. There were very few castles; very few stone buildings. The earls were more powerful than the king. Oriented toward the North Sea, not the continent.

A Comparison: Normandy and England in 1030

England was a Saxon state that still bore many of the characteristics of the older Germanic kingship. The earls were as powerful as the king himself, and were rivals as often as allies. The king's army consisted of his household, his barons and their retainers, and a general levy of the Saxon peasantry. The Church was centered more on the monastery than on the cathedral. And England looked more to the North Sea than across the Channel.

Normany, on the other hand, was developing as a feudal state, at least under William. He held his barons under much closer control, and was both wealthier and more powerful than any of them. The duke controlled the Church, too, through its central power of the Archbishop of Rouen.

Yet, despite real differences, the fates of the two were tangled together, and this led to the eventual conflict.

Duke William

Born 1028 at Falaise in Normandy, William was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and Herleve, a girl of Falaise of uncertain parentage. Although illegitimate, he was, nevertheless, a direct descendant of Rolf the Viking and had a good claim to the throne. His claim was all the stronger when his father went on a pilgrimage in 1034 and died on the return trip, making William duke in 1035 at the age of 7. Before leaving, Robert brought forward William and had him recognized as his heir.

Upon hearing of Robert's death, a number of notables, including the Archbishop of .Rouen (who was Robert's brother), moved to protect and defend the young boy. His minority was a period of grim disorder. Several of those close to William were assassinated. His tutor took to sleeping in the same room with the boy in order to protect him. A number of times William had to flee in the night and hide out in peasant cottages.

When William was 18 he became duke officially, with no tutor or regent. This led immediately to a rebellion as the barons sought to test their new lord's strength. He crushed the rebellion and firmly established himself as being of age and in charge.


His early adult years were filled with wars and rebellions, including a war with King Henry of France, and with his neighbors in Brittany, Maine and Anjou. In 1049, William married Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, forging an alliance between two of the most powerful northern territories.

By 1060 William had a considerable reputation as a warrior, for he was generally successful in his wars. He was a tenacious opponent, brutal at times. Many of the wars were fought against great odds, increasing both his reputation and his confidence in the field.

One result of these wars was a very large scale transfer of land, either in the form of conquered territory, or in confiscations from rebellious vassals. The duke gave these back out to those loyal to him, transforming his barons into an aristocracy that was loyal to him.

During these years William was able to make himself the arbiter of disputes, the fount of favors, and the ultimate authority in the duchy. So the barons increasingly served rather than challenged him.

Similarly, the duke ruled the Church. The nobles founded many monasteries and the archbishopric of Rouen was coterminous with the duchy. The powerful families controlled the ecclesiastical positions, and all served the duke.

Anglo-Norman Relations

In the 10thc, Vikings hit both England and Normandy very hard, devastating and dominating the area. When the Danes took England in 1013, the West Saxon royal family fled to Normandy.

The kings in exile did not forget or relinquish their claim to be the true kings of England. Edward the Confessor was the claimant, and he lived in Normandy until he became king in 1042. William was 14 at that time. The Danes and Norwegians continued to try to re-claim England over the next two decades, but without success.

There were, therefore, close ties and intertwining interests between the Danes (and the Norwegians, who inherited the Danish claims), the Saxons, and the Normans. William grew up well- acquainted with the stituation.

The Succession Issue

Back in England, Edward found that his own earls were every bit as dangerous as the Vikings, and he turned to his Norman friends for succor in his struggles them. He gave fiefs to Norman lords, trying to keep the Saxon barons from becoming too strong.

In 1051 Edward, who was childless, carried this plan to its ultimate conclusion when he designated William (now aged 23) as his heir. This was a move that surprised and dismayed a number of Saxon lords who felt that one of them was the more natural choice. But Edward felt that only the Normans, who had sheltered him in his exile, were his trusted friends.

Among the Saxon earls, Godwin was the most powerful in England in the 1040s. He and his fellows almost completely dominated politics and power in this decade, and these were the ones Edward feared. Godwin's son, Harold, succeeded his father in 1053 and carried on his father's ambitions. In fact, Harold Godwinson emerged as not only the most powerful lord in England but also as the leader of the anti-Norman party, and the logical Saxon candidate for the throne. But Edward did not like the man much. Harold had several quarrels with Edward, but they always made it up again.

The Danes, too, had a claim, and through them, the Norwegians. The principal individual here was Harold Hardraada, a famous warrior related to the line of Canute. In the 1060s Hardraada gained control of both Norway and Denmark and began planning in earnest to take back England. There was much anti-Edward, anti-Norman sentiment in the north of England, where Viking influence was strong anyway, and Harold had good reason to hope for success on the battlefield.

So, by the early 1060s, Edward the Confessor was faced with three powerful forces contending for the English throne: the Normans, who could claim the throne by right of bequest; the Saxons, who claimed it by right of tradition and nationality, and who had the advantage of being on the spot; and the Norwegians, who had a better legal claim than the Saxons, but who realistically could win it only by conquest--something Vikings were rather good at.

It was not a situation that lent itself to diplomacy, but Edward was determined to make one more attempt at a peaceful solution.

The Deal

In 1064 Edward asked Harold Godwinson to go to Normandy and there to confirm publicly Duke William's right of succession. Harold agreed. It may seem odd that Harold would do this, but he wasn't ready yet for open rebellion, and to refuse the king's command in this would be an act of rebellion.

Besides, he felt he could easily recant any promises he might make, once the old king was dead. A few easy promises now, and later . . . well, who knew? Moreover, Harold would meet with William as equals, and all would know who was the greater lord.

But chance played havoc with Harold's plans. In crossing the Channel, the earl was blown off course by a storm, and was cast ashore in Ponthieu. There, he was captured by Count Guy, the local lord. This sort of thing was a common enough practice, for ransoming nobles was a profitable business. Count Guy figured to hang on to his unexpected prize and extract a tidy sum for him.

Duke William, though, was Guy's lord. Instead of allowing him to hold Harold for ransom, he immediately demanded Guy release Harold into William's care. Count Guy did not dare defy William, but it must have distressed him to let his prize catch go.

William sent an armed guard to escort Harold to Caen. Instead of arriving in full dress, as a powerful baron, Harold was arriving alone and under guard, at once in William's debt for having rescued him from Count Guy and yet also uncomfortably like a prisoner being taken to court.

Nearly helpless, Harold was forced to swear an oath of fealty to William and to swear further that he would advocate William's cause in England. In return for this, William generously made the great English earl a Norman knight. Harold didn't much like William anyway, and this episode set his teeth on edge.

There is a story that, in the swearing of these oaths, Harold placed his hand on a table. He did this fully intending to break his word. Once the oath was sworn, William's men whipped off the covering or top, revealing sacred relics underneath. Swearing on relics was a very much more serious matter, and William had perpetrated the trick in order to out-fox Harold, whom he suspected of duplicity.

There is no contemporary evidence for this trick, but it fits in well with the temperment of the two men, with William always one step ahead of Harold.

In any case, Harold returned to England, having had much the worse in the encounter. Despite all, however, he was determined to be the next king of England and set about ensuring his success.

The Death of Edward the Confessor

On 5 January 1066 Edward the Confessor died. On 6 January, Harold Godwinson, after having ridden all night, was crowned king in London. He claimed that Edward on his deathbed changed his will and designated him as successor and true king. He even produced a document proving it, though no one else knew of its existence.

It is just possible that Edward changed his mind, as some accounts say that Edward was out of his head toward the end. Perhaps he did so in delirium; perhaps he did so urged by councillors sympathetic to Harold; and perhaps he did no such thing and Harold's document was a forgery.

It truly did not matter. The question of succession was certainly not going to be settled by documents and lawyers. William immediately sent a protest, but he knew war would be the only way to enforce his claims, and he set preparations in motion at once.

Marshalling of Forces

Harold Hardraada had already been planning an invasion and was practically ready to go, when he was delayed by rebellions within his own lands and was unable to go until September.

William spent the summer building a fleet and gathering his army for the invasion. He was ready in August, but the fleet was bottled up at Saint-ValČry by contrary winds. Attack by sea was always risky and William did not dare to chance it when the winds made it difficult to land.

Harold Godwinson gathered his army in southern England (his natural power base) and did what he could to rally support. But he had supply problems, and his army was not tied to him by personal oaths of loyalty. So on September 8 he dismissed all but his personal retainers.


On 18 September, Harold Hardraada landed on the Humber River with a huge fleet and a large army, only ten days after Harold had been forced to disband the better part of his own forces. On 20 September, the Vikings won a victory over the northern earls and occupied the city of York.

Harold immediately re-gathered his army and marched north to meet the invaders. On 25 September, the Saxons and the Norwegians met at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It was a hard-fought, day-long battle with heavy losses on both sides. Neither side had won decisively, but the Viking invasion depended on resounding victories and Hardraada had not achieved this. The following day, a second battle at Fulford destroyed the Vikings utterly. This marks the last major Viking invasion of England.

It was a brilliant victory for Harold. He had marched the length of England in record time, going into battle at Stamford Bridge with scarcely any rest. The Saxon infantry had won a decisive victory, and Hardraada himself had been killed. It seemed certain that the earl would remain king.

Then, on 27 September, the wind turned and William sailed, landing near the town of Hastings the next day.

The fact that William still had an army is a testament to his abilities as an organizer and a leader. He had managed to keep his vassals by his side, and even kept the sailors in hand, for long weeks of frustration. When the opportunity finally came, he was ready. This was most unusual for medieval armies. William immediately built some defensive works around his position at Hastings and gained control of the surrounding countryside. He knew Harold would be coming for him.

On 6 October, Harold Godwinson returned to London and sent out a call to raise more troops. His forces had suffered cruelly at Stamford Bridge and he needed all the soldiers he could raise.

But he could not wait long, for every day that passed made William stronger. On 11 October, Harold marched to Hastings, arriving the night of 13-14 October. The next morning, he gave battle.

The Battle of Hastings

We know rather few details about the battle itself. Harold took a position on some low hills and the Normans attacked that position. It was a hard fought battle that lasted the entire day, neither side able to get the better of the other.

As the day wore on, however, superior Norman discipline began to tell. Some of the Saxon forces began to melt away. Toward evening, Harold himself was killed by an arrow, but by the time he died the battle was clearly lost.

The story of the Battle of Hastings, and the events surrounding it, are told in the remarkable Bayeux Tapestry. Norman knights pursued Saxons well into the night, and by the next day there was no one to stand against the invader. William called his men back and set about securing his position. He had won a great battle, but he had not yet won England, and he needed to keep his army together.

The Conquest

William sent out news of his victory and invited the Saxon lords to recognize him as the legitimate king. He waited for five days and none did. Instead, they withdrew to their own lands, to defend their own interests.

By the end of November William controlled most of the old lands of Wessex. In December he took London. More and more lords now submitted to him, yielding to events. He was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066.

One of his first acts was to build a fortress in London, a tactic he used in several towns. This one became famous though: the Tower of London, the Norman core of which still stands.

Now that he was a crowned king, William set about imposing his rule on England. He spent five years quelling rebellions and establishing Norman authority, building many castles and stocking them with men brought from Normandy. Those who fought with him at Hastings did very well, receiving lands all over England as fiefs.

The conqueror was thorough, and by 1073 he was able to return to Normandy. He spent most of the next twelve years there, dealing with various matters, including a rebellion of his own son in league with the French king. He returned to England in 1085 to deal with a combined Saxon revolt and Viking invasion (they had not given up, having mounted raids in 1069 and 1075).

In short, England did not fall into William's lap at Hastings. The army of Harold Godwinson was destroyed, but the Saxon English resisted the Normans for years, and Norman authority was established only through brute force. In truth, the Saxons greatly expedited the Conqueror's work, for through their rebellions many of their best leaders died or were exiled, and much Saxon wealth was confiscated by Normans.

Aftermath: The Domesday Book

After the conquest, William decided on another ambitious underaking--nothing less than a general inventory of his new realm. He appointed surveyors, inspectors who were empowered to visit every fief and village in England, there to record in detail the wealth and legal obligations of each.

The resulting collection of records is known as the Domesday Book, a veritable treasure for historians. It records how much land a knight held, how many villages were there, how many buildings in the village, even the number of cattle and yield of grain. Historians have long used this source to understand the social and economic structure of 11th century England. William used it to assess nicely the wealth and military strength he had at his command as king of England.

The Domesday Book is unique in the Middle Ages. No other king attempted such an inventory. No other king possessed the great authority needed to force reluctant vassals to divulge such information. The Book shows William's keen mind and powerful will at work. The fact that there were no others shows how little medieval monarchs knew of their own power.

Aftermath: The Salisbury Oath

The rebellion that brought William back to England was a serious one, in which the rebels cooperated with Viking forces. It cost William considerable effort to suppress it, and in its wake he made a new arrangement with his barons. William ordered his nobility to the Salisbury plain where they swore an oath of fealty directly to him. This relationship was unique in Europe at the time. Usually, a minor knight might hold a few acres from a baron, who in turn held the land from a count or earl, who in turn held large tracts of the king. But in 1086 William forced all his vassals to swear service directly to him for their fiefs.

Here again we see William's clear-mindedness and pragmatism. It is likely that other kings thought of doing what William did, or longed for it, but no French or German king ever had the remarkable authority and power that the Conqueror did. Indeed, even later English kings found their authority fragmented and attenuated by divided loyalties among the baronage. The Salisbury Oath was possible not only because William could conceive of it, but because he was king of a conquered people and could achieve it.

Later Years

His eldest son, Robert, rebelled against him in 1078, in Normandy. Originally, Robert was to have inherited both Normandy and England. This revolt caused William to reject his oldest as a fit heir to the crown of England. Robert became duke of Normandy and William II became king of England.

This had profound implications for both nations. Had it turned out that Robert succeeded his father as both Duke of Normandy and King of England, he would have been one of the strongest monarchs in Europe. Normandy would have been a part of England and would have been pulled steadily away from French control; or, perhaps, England would have been pulled more into a French orbit.

In any event, because of the family quarrel, Normandy and England would go their separate ways.

Death of William

William returned to Normandy after Salisbury, for he was at war with the King of France again. He fell ill while campaigning, and was taken to a monastery at Saint-Gervais. He died on 9 September 1087. The great lords with him quickly departed, including his son, William Rufus, hurrying back to their castles and estates, the better to guard their interests.

What happened to William after his death provides an interesting example of the vagaries of fortune.

The quick flight of the nobility left only the lesser attendants with the body, and when the servants looked around and saw no great lords about, they lost all discipline. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis says,"Observing that their masters had disappeared, [they] laid hands on the arms, the plate, the linen, and the royal furniture, and hastened away, leaving the corpse almost naked on the floor of the cell."

His body was brought to Caen. The funeral procession was interrupted when a fire broke out in the town. Those carrying the coffin put it down, rushed off to fight the fire, then returned when the fire was out to continue the procession.

The procession arrived at the cathedral at Caen finally. A lovely service was held. The eulogies were disrupted, however, when Ascelin, a local man, rose to protest that he was the owner of the ground in which the king was to be buried. He complained that he had not been paid and loudly demanded his rights. Someone came and settled him down, paid him, and the services resumed.

As the body was being placed in the stone coffin, the attendants accidentally broke one of the limbs, releasing such a foul stench that the priests had to hurry the service to an undignified close. The cathedral quickly emptied.

His memorial was beautiful, at least. Chroniclers tell us this, for it has not survived. In 1562, Calvinists completely ruined it, looting the tomb. The body disappeared at this time. Eighty years later, a new monument was built, likewise beautiful. In it was re-buried what was left of William: a thigh bone that a priest claimed had been rescued from the Calvinist sack.

The new monument was destroyed in its turn during the revolutionary riots of 1793. Today, William has only a stone slab to commemorate him. Local tradition asserts that the thigh bone is still under the slab. But it is a sorry survival for the Conqueror.

Effects of the Conquest

The effects of the Conquest were numerous and ran deep. One of the most immediate and most serious was the almost complete transfer of power at the top of society from Saxon to Norman hands.

William consistently sought ways and excuses to remove Saxons from power, but the Saxons themselves were most obliging. Many went into exile. Many were killed in the invasion and later rebellions. Many more were simply dispossessed. By 1086, 80% of the fiefs were in Norman hands (some held by Flemings and Bretons).

William brought with him the centralizing tendencies and techniques he had followed in Normandy. William as king held one- fifth of all land in England; this was a far greater estate than held by any French king. A quarter was held by the Church. Half the fiefs belonged to Norman lords, but their holdings were scattered rather than concentrated, so they could never become rivals to royal power. William was quite careful about this--he did not want to create another Earl of Wessex to rival the king.

One element in William's control of England was a military innovation he brought with him from France: stone castles. England had few, if any, stone castles before the Conqueror. After him, the landscape was transformed: 84 built by 1100. These castles were always given to Norman lords and many were built in areas prone to rebellion. The castles were all but impregnable and served as Norman anchors in a Saxon sea.

A long-term change was the change of language. The Normans spoke French, and French now became the language of government and the nobility. It remained so until the 15thc. Henry II, Richard the Lion-Hearted, even Edward Longshanks, all spoke French. Language was a barrier and a divide between the Norman lords and their Saxon subjects.

The Robin Hood legend has strong echoes of the division. Remember, all the bad guys in the legend are Normans, while all the good guys are Saxons. Never mind that the ultimate hero is Richard Lion-Heart, whose father was born in Anjou; the legend is filled with anachronisms, like any good legend. But the antagonism between Norman and Saxon in the Robin Hood stories reflected a real one that lasted long after the death of the Conqueror.

The Norman Conquest brought profound changes in landholding and in politics. Prior to the invasion, there were freeholders in England--nobles who held title to their own lands. William brought that to an end. The formula was nullus terre sans seigneur, a lovely phrase that combines Latin with French. It means: no land without a lord.

When he granted lands to his Norman lords, it was granted in exchange for service. When he confirmed Saxon lords in their holdings, he brought them under the same obligations. And he imposed heavy demands on his vassals, requiring of them the service of many more knights than he was able to require in Normandy, where tradition placed limits on the rights of the duke.

To illustrate: in England, 11 lords owed 60 or more knights each; 27 lords owed 25 or more; 6 bishoprics and 3 abbeys owed 40 or more. In Normandy, in contrast, only a handful of lords owed even more than 10 knights. This, too, survived for a long time. This is why, even though England was a much less populous country than France, the English king was able to field armies of comparable size. He simply had direct command of more knights.

William instituted a great expansion of the royal forest, at the expense of the nobility. He introduced the King's Council, the curia regis, which gave advice to the king and sat in judgment on nobles accused of serious crimes.

William also brought with him the Norman church, with its Romanesque church architecture and its reforming spirit. The old English church was still centered on the monastery. The new church drew its strength from the cathedrals in the towns. And he continued his Norman practice of appointing bishops as he saw fit, granting sees as rewards to selected families.

Harder to define, but no less important, the Conquest oriented England away from Scandinavia and towards France. Because of the strong Danish influence, England had had much to do with Denmark and Norway and rather little to do with France. Now, England's fate was bound up with that of France, and the consequences of this would reverberate for centuries.

Through all these changes, local government remained untouched: the shires and their reeves, the shire court, the Danegeld, the national militia. There was a gradual loss of freedom for the peasants, but also an end to slavery (which was still practiced in Saxon England). Saxon tradition therefore survived at the local level and among the peasantry, further perpetuating the rift between conquerors and conquered.

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.