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The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris
The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

William the Conqueror

William I’s Triumph Over England

William the Conqueror, also recognized as William I of England, left an indelible mark on history as a Norman statesman and warlord. His role as the inaugural Norman King of England (1066–1087) and his tenure as the Duke of Normandy (1035–1087) highlight his influential legacy.

The Battle of Hastings: Shaping History

During the Battle of Hastings, William emerged victorious against Harold Godwinson, the final Anglo-Saxon ruler of England. This momentous event, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, significantly altered the trajectories of both Norman and English histories. The conflict determined the rightful claimant to the English throne, ultimately leading to Harold’s demise in 1066.

Early Life and Challenging Minority Rule

William’s origins trace back to Falaise, Normandy, where he was born around 1027 or 1028 to Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and his concubine Herleva. Following his father’s passing in 1035, William ascended to the title of Duke of Normandy, albeit with obstacles due to his youth.

Navigating Turbulence: Establishing Authority

William’s early rule faced resistance, as certain Normans were hesitant to accept a young leader. The influential Robert II, Archbishop of Rouen, stood as a safeguard for William, supported by King Henry I of France. The passing of Archbishop Robert in 1037 instigated internal discord among Norman nobles, causing instability.

Challenges and Triumphs in Adolescence

Amidst these struggles, in 1042, William convened a church council in Normandy. This assembly introduced the Truce of God, a regulation aiming to curb private wars by designating periods of non-conflict. William’s decisive action to establish this law showcased his growing competence as a ruler. By approximately 1044, he attained adulthood, shedding the need for tutors and embracing independent governance.

Duke of Normandy

Val-es-Dunes: Private Wars and Revolt

In the year 1046, the landscape of private warfare remained tense. The authority of Duke William depended heavily on the loyalty of his viscounts. Towards the end of 1046, a significant number of families residing in lower Normandy conspired to unseat William from his ducal position. Seeking to establish stability, William welcomed his cousin Guy of Burgundy into his court. In a gesture to appease Guy, William granted him castles in Brionne and Vernon. Yet, Guy’s ambitions extended beyond contentment; he aspired to rule over Normandy himself, thus sparking an open rebellion. Rallying forces, Guy emerged as the leader of this uprising, attracting two of William’s viscounts to his cause. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, William sought assistance from King Henry. King Henry promptly arrived with a substantial army, uniting his forces with those of Duke William to confront the rebels at Val-es-Dunes. The rebels faced defeat, with Guy retreating to his castle at Brionne. William laid siege to the castle, effectively starving Guy until his surrender in 1049. Despite the rebellion, William forgave Guy, who eventually returned to Burgundy. This victory at Val-es-Dunes marked a pivotal step in William’s quest for control over Normandy.

Church Council and the Truce of God

In October 1047, a gathering of clergy convened near the Val-es-Dunes battlefield to deliberate upon a renewed Truce of God. This arrangement stipulated the prohibition of private warfare from Wednesday evening through Monday morning, as well as during significant religious observances like Advent, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. This framework mirrored similar truces in force elsewhere in France. Importantly, the truce did not encompass the king and the duke, allowing them to engage in warfare during these periods to uphold peace. With the church’s endorsement, William’s pursuit of peace in Normandy gained further support.

Matilda of Flanders, wife of William I of England portrait. Originally from "Queens of England" - 1894.

Matilda of Flanders, wife of William I of England portrait. Originally from “Queens of England” – 1894.

Ascension to Authority

The battle at Val-es-Dunes signaled the commencement of William’s ascent to power. Although the victory was attributed more to the intervention of the king, it bolstered William’s image as a capable leader. Among William’s nobles, a growing acknowledgment of his leadership qualities emerged, encouraging him to contemplate marriage. Around 1049, William resolved to wed Matilda of Flanders, daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders, and Adela of France—herself the daughter of King Robert II of France. Initial opposition from Pope Leo IX arose due to their familial relation, but the marriage occurred clandestinely between 1050 and 1052. Notably, it wasn’t until 1059 that Pope Nicholas II revoked the marriage ban.

Shifts and Challenges

While solidifying his authority in Normandy, William confronted shifting dynamics. His previous collaboration with King Henry, supported by William’s aid against the Count of Anjou, altered in 1052 when King Henry and Count Geoffrey of Anjou reconciled, prompting the king’s hostility towards William. Simultaneously, William’s uncles—Archbishop Mauger and Count William of Arques—rebelled against him. A confrontation ensued at Arques Castle, resulting in William’s victory and the banishment of his uncles from Normandy. The turning point lay in King Henry’s sizeable intervention, aligned with Count William of Arques. However, William’s forces triumphed over the joint army, leading to the capitulation of the castle and the removal of his uncles from Normandy’s affairs.

King’s Repeated Intrusions

In 1054, King Henry again ventured into Normandy with a substantial hostile force, bifurcating his army as he led one division while his brother Odo commanded the other east of the Seine River. This time, William enjoyed unwavering support from the entirety of Normandy. Strategic preclusion of food sources for the French armies posed difficulties for their sustenance. William further divided his forces into two armies, attentively monitoring the king’s troops for tactical opportunities. Capitalizing on a moment of relaxation among Odo’s forces in the town of Mortimer, William’s second army seized the initiative, devastating Odo’s soldiers and capturing survivors for ransom. This defeat triggered panic among the king’s troops, prompting their rapid departure from Normandy. A subsequent three-year peace accord was forged between King Henry and William, although the truce was shattered in 1058 with another incursion by the king. Capitalizing on an advantageous moment, William engaged the French army as they crossed the Dives River at Varaville, decimating their forces as they entered the water. King Henry fled Normandy permanently, and his death shortly thereafter marked a new era, placing his young son Phillip under the guardianship of William’s father-in-law, Baldwin V. This shift in relations allowed William to expand his dominion with newfound freedom.

Normandy and England: Interweaving Alliances

The year 1002 saw the alliance formed between Ethelred King of England and Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, a union with far-reaching consequences. When Canute ascended the English throne in 1016, he took Emma of Normandy as his queen, and her sons from her previous marriage sought refuge in Normandy. Edward, the elder son, found shelter at the ducal court, under the protection of his cousin William, who would later aid him in claiming the English throne in 1042. Edward’s declaration of William as his heir in 1052 further solidified the connection between Normandy and England. However, the subsequent events of 1066 unveiled Harold Godwinson’s betrayal of his pledge to support William’s claim to the English throne, as he assumed the kingship on January 6th, the day following Edward’s funeral. William’s anticipation of Edward’s death and Harold’s ascension is palpable, but the suddenness of the news must have surprised others.

The Norman Invasion of England

Prelude: William’s Grand Design Unveiled

The stage was set, and William’s ambitions stirred with the news of turmoil in England. Swiftly, he summoned his elite council, plotting a campaign of unprecedented scale. His sphere of influence and wealth wielded power, enabling him to amass a formidable army drawn from all corners of France. The first task at hand: constructing a fleet capable of traversing the treacherous English Channel. Yet, his reach stretched further, as he secured the support of allies like Brittany, France, and Flanders, diversifying his forces. From across Europe, paid soldiers and knights answered his call, forming a robust multinational assembly.

Amidst his preparations, William secured an unexpected blessing—the blessing of the Pope, encapsulated in a sacred banner bestowed upon him. Meanwhile, another contender, Harold Hardrada, had his own designs on England’s throne. As these two forces converged towards the island, the English king, knowing the dual threat, positioned his defenses to protect the southern coastline where William’s forces might land.

The Fateful Landing: Mora Leads the Way

William’s armada, rumored to number a thousand ships, embarked from Normandy under favorable winds, departing on the eve of 27th September 1066. Guided by his wife Matilda’s gift—the ship Mora—the fleet arrived at Pevensey the following morning. Just as he set foot on English soil, news reached William of Harold’s triumph over the Norwegian king at Stamford Bridge in the north. Harold, learning of the Norman landing, hastened south, determined to repel the foreign incursion.

The Unfolding Epic: Battle on Senlay Hill
Battle of Hastings, battleplan.

Battle of Hastings, battleplan.

Amidst the verdant landscape, Harold’s forces took their stand atop Senlay Hill, a ridge stretching east to west. The valley before them soon witnessed the march of the Norman army, while Harold’s men, though greater in number, bore the weariness of a grueling march from London. William, positioning his ranks below the hill, stared up at the formidable English shield wall. His archers advanced halfway up the slope, unleashing their arrows upon the English lines. Flanking maneuvers by mounted knights probed for weaknesses, though uphill charges yielded little progress. Yet, the Norman ranks saw a resurgence as William’s helm was lifted, assuring his soldiers of his survival.

William’s strategic ingenuity came to the fore. With sudden charges and cavalry ambushes, he undermined the English shield wall’s resilience. Repeatedly, this cunning tactic punctured the formation. Now, with precision, he orchestrated a synchronized assault—knights and foot soldiers advancing as archers’ arrows rained down from above. It was amidst this barrage that King Harold met his end, struck down by an arrow. The shield wall faltered, and Normans surged forward. Nightfall marked the culmination of their triumph, with the English either fallen or pursued by William’s determined troops.

Victory’s Echoes: Aftermath and Coronation

Although the battle was claimed, smaller English forces remained. King Harold’s absence left a void, yet resistance endured. William, pausing for five days to regroup, commenced his march towards London. His path bore witness to conquered towns and scorched earth, a testament to his unyielding advance. London, the ultimate prize, stood firm before relenting. On Christmas Day, 1066, the crowning moment arrived: William ascended the English throne. Forevermore, history would hail him by the moniker earned through his conquest—a name echoing through time: ‘William the Conqueror’.

King of England

King William I ('The Conqueror')

King William I (‘The Conqueror’)

Early Reign and Coronation 

William strategically chose to be crowned during Christmas, believing that this significant feast day would deter English unrest. He also perceived his kingship as a divine mandate, aligning with God’s will. After his coronation, he spent several months in England before returning to Normandy. During his absence, capable men, his half-brother Odo and William FitzOsbern administered England. Odo became Earl of Kent, while FitzOsbern was appointed Earl of Hereford. The remaining English earls retained their positions. To prevent potential revolts, William brought influential figures like Archbishop Stigand, Edgar Atheling, and the three English earls, Edwin, Morcar, and Waltheof, back with him to Normandy.

Assessing Issues and Initial Rebellions

Upon his return to London in December 1067, William faced challenges: Mercian raids in Hertfordshire and Exeter’s rejection of his rule. William gathered funds from compliant regions and summoned English levies. After securing Exeter’s surrender by blinding a hostage, he subdued Devon and Cornwall, bringing temporary calm. At Winchester, Matilda, his wife, became Queen of England at Pentecost. However, more rebellions emerged by summer. Edgar Atheling fled to Scotland, while anti-Norman groups congregated in the North. Earls Edwin and Morcar joined the rebels. William countered with strategic castle construction and negotiations to prevent Scottish invasions. Despite his efforts, a significant uprising erupted in 1069.

Northward Campaign and Danish Intervention

William’s northern forces were annihilated, and York suffered devastation. Concurrently, smaller revolts surfaced in Wales and southwest England. To manage the crises, William consolidated his troops and dealt with rebels sequentially. He repelled Danish invasion attempts and ultimately crushed the remaining resistance. A siege in Chester proved challenging but was eventually resolved in William’s favor. His infamous “harrying of the North” led to surrender and submission, except for pockets of resistance.

Dual Governance of England and Normandy

Maintaining control required William’s presence in both England and Normandy. Issues emerged when he was absent from either realm. Matilda governed Normandy during his English sojourns. Trouble arose in Anjou, where Fulk Rechin seized Maine from William. Reclaiming Maine was essential. In 1082, William arrested his half-brother Odo, who had aspired to become Pope, accusing him of raising an army against his orders. Odo’s imprisonment ensued.

Loss of Queen Matilda and Further Challenges

In 1083, Queen Matilda’s death impacted William profoundly. Despite their strong bond, discord arose over their rebellious son Robert Curthose. Philip I of France supported Robert’s ambitions, leading to tensions. In 1085, William faced threats from Canute IV of Denmark, necessitating his return to England with an army. This event prompted the realization that proper financial records were lacking.

The Domesday Book and Its Significance

During his Christmas court in 1085, William ordered a comprehensive survey of England, documenting population, property size, value, and income. This unprecedented survey produced the Domesday Book, the first public record in England. Split into two volumes, the Great Domesday covered thirty-one counties, while the Little Domesday encompassed Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. Panels of bishops and earls gathered information, culminating in the presentation of the Domesday Book in 1086.

William’s Passing and The Oath of Salisbury

In Rouen, France, William met his demise due to injuries from a fall off his horse. In August 1086, he summoned his tenants-in-chief and landowners to Old Sarum, initiating “The Oath of Salisbury.” This pledge of allegiance was made during a time of crisis, serving as practical assurance and reminder rather than a constitutional proclamation.

Featured Image

William I 'The Conqueror'

William I ‘The Conqueror’

In a grand tableau of medieval splendor, King William I commands attention as he sits regally atop his majestic steed. Clad in resplendent armor, the monarch exudes an aura of authority and valor. His sword, glinting in the sunlight, rests securely by his side, a testament to his prowess in both diplomacy and battle. A sturdy shield, emblazoned with the majestic arms of England, rests against his shoulder, symbolizing his unwavering commitment to his realm’s defense. The royal entourage, a formidable assembly of knights and soldiers, marches in unison alongside their sovereign, forming an imposing display of military might and loyalty.

 

Sources

  • to, C. (2004, September 14). King of England, Duke of Normandy (c. 1028-1087). Wikipedia.org; Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_the_Conqueror

  • William the Conqueror – Historic UK. (2022). Historic UK. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/William-The-Conqueror/

  • William I “The Conqueror” (r. 1066-1087). (2017). The Royal Family. https://www.royal.uk/william-the-conqueror

  • David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror; The Norman Impact upon England (Berkeley; Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1964), p. 15

  • David Crouch, The Normans; The History of a Dynasty (London; New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), pp. 53-54

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