William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

William, the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and Herleva of Falaise, was born in 1027. Instead of marrying Herleva, Robert persuaded her to marry his friend, Herluin of Conteville. After marriage, Herleva had two more sons, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain.

In 1035, Robert of Normandy went on a pilgrimage. Before setting out on his trip Robert he forced his lords to swear fealty to William. Although William was illegitimate, he was Robert's only living son.

When Robert of Normandy died in 1035 William inherited his father's title. Several leading Normans, including Gilbert of Brionne, Osbern the Seneschal and Alan of Brittany, became William's guardians.

A number of Norman barons would not accept an illegitimate son as their leader and in 1040 an attempt was made to kill William. The plot failed but they did manage to kill Gilbert of Brionne, Alan of Brittany and Osbern the Seneschal. William survived but he was forced to accept Ralph of Wacy as his guardian and leader of his armed forces. William was unhappy with this as Ralph had been involved in the plot against him and had been responsible for the murder of Gilbert of Brionne.

William began to govern Normandy in 1045. Two years later, the lords of the western region of the duchy rebelled, but William successfully defeated them at Val-es-dunes. In 1051 William visited Edward the Confessor, the king of England. Later, William claimed that Edward promised him that he would become his heir.

In 1053 William married Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. Over the next sixteen years the couple had nine children. Robert Curthose, Richard (killed in a hunting accident in 1075), Cecily, William Rufus, Agatha, Henry Beauclerk and Adela.

William's power in Normandy was constantly under threat. In 1053 he suppressed a revolt led by William of Arques. After repulsing two French invasions, William eventually managed to capture Maine. At first the people of Maine were unwilling to accept William as their leader. In 1063 William's army ravaged the land until he received their submission.

In 1064 Harold of Wessex was on board a ship that was wrecked on the coast of Ponthieu. He was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu and imprisoned at Beaurain. William, demanded that Count Guy release him into his care. Guy agreed and Harold went with William to Rouen. Later the two men went into battle against Conan of Brittany.

William of Normandy (seated) negotiates with HaroldGodwinson (with mustache) in 1064 Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)
William of Normandy (seated) negotiates with Harold
Godwinson (with mustache) in 1064 Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)

For his role in the capture of Dinan, Harold was knighted by William. During the ceremony at Bayeux, Harold took an oath that he would do his best to help William to become king when Edward the Confessor died. Harold also agreed to marry William's daughter, Eadmer. In return, William promised Harold half the realm of England.

In 1065 Edward the Confessor became very ill. Harold claimed that Edward promised him the throne just before he died on 5th January, 1066. The next day there was a meeting of the Witan to decide who would become the next king of England. The Witan was made up of a group of about sixty lords and bishops and they considered the merits of four main candidates: William, Harold, Edgar Etheling and Harald Hardrada. On 6th January 1066, the Witan decided that Harold was to be the next king of England.

When William heard the news he sent a message to Harold reminding him of the oath he took in 1064. Harold responded that he was duty bound to follow the decision taken by the Witan.

William now began to prepare for war. After a meeting with his barons at Lillebonne, he sent Gilbert, the Archdeacon of Lisieux, to gain permission from Pope Alexander II, to go into battle against Harold. Although the action was opposed by many of the cardinals, Alexander II eventually agreed and sent William his blessing.

William was also visited by Harold's brother Tostig. Tostig offered to help William against Harold and it was agreed that Tostig's army would sail to England. In May 1066 Tostig landed in the Isle of Wight and forced the inhabitants to give him money and provisions. He then sailed north with sixty ships and entered the Humber before being driven away by Morcar.

After spending time in Scotland Tostig went to Denmark and asked his cousin, King Sweyn, to help him against Harold. He refused and so Tostig went to Norway to meet King Hardrada. He agreed to join the campaign and in early September Tostig and 300 ships sailed along the coast and did some plundering, including the burning of Scarborough. They then entered the Humber and on 20th September defeated Morcar's army at Gate Fulford. Four days later the invaders took York.

On 24th September Harold's army arrived at Tadcaster. The following day he took Tostig and Hardrada by surprise at a place called Stamford Bridge. It was a hot day and the Norwegians had taken off their byrnies (leather jerkins with sewn-on metal rings). Harold and his English troops devastated the Norwegians. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway.

While Harold had been fighting against King Hardrada, William had been completing his preparations for the attack on England. To make sure he had enough Normans to defeat Harold, he asked the men of Poitou, Burgundy, Brittany and Flanders to help. William also arranged for soldiers from Germany, Denmark and Italy to join his army. In exchange for their services, William promised them a share of the land and wealth of England. William also managed to enlist the support of the Pope in his campaign to gain the throne of England.

These negotiations took all summer. William also had to arrange the building of the ships to take his large army to England. About 700 ships were ready to sail in August but William had to wait a further month for a change in the direction of the wind. The invasion fleet eventually departed on 27th August. Travelling by night, the Normans landed at Pevensey Bay on 28th August.

He fortified a camp at Hastings and then began ravaging the area. Harold was at York when he heard the news and he immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived Stamford Bridge and marched south. He travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London on 5th October and there he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the Earl of Mercia and the Earl of Northumbria to arrive from the north.

Harold's brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. Harold rejected the advice and after five days Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops.

When Harold realised he was unable to take William by surprise he positioned himself at Senlac Hill near Hastings. Harold selected a spot that was protected on each flank by marshy land. At his rear was a group of trees. He further strengthened his position with a ditch and a palisade. The English housecarls provided a shield wall at the front of Harold's army. They carried large battle-axes and were considered to be the toughest fighters in Europe.

The fyrd were placed behind the housecarls. The leaders of the fyrd, the thegns had swords and javelins but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron-studded clubs, scythes, slings, reaping-hooks and hay-forks.

We have no accurate figures of the number of soldiers who took part in the Battle of Hastings. Historians have estimated that William had 5,000 infantry and 3,000 knights while Harold had about 2, 500 housecarls and over 6,000 members of the fyrd. Before the fighting started on 14th October, William spoke to his men reminding them they had never lost a battle under his command.

At nine in the morning the Norman archers walked up the hill and when they were about a 100 yards away from Harold's army they fired their first batch of arrows. Using their shields, the housecarls were able to block most of this attack. The Norman infantry then charged up the hill.

The English held firm and the Normans were forced to retreat. Members of the fyrd broke ranks and chased after the Bretons. William ordered his cavalry to attacked the English who had left their positions on Senlac Hill. English losses were heavy and very few managed to return to their place at the top of the hill.

At about twelve noon there was a break in the fighting for an hour. This gave both sides a chance to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. William, who had originally planned to use his cavalry when the English retreated decided to change his tactics. At about one in the afternoon he ordered his archers forward.

This time he told them to fire higher in the air. The change of direction of the arrows caught the English by surprise. The arrow attack was immediately followed by a cavalry charge. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Those killed included Harold's two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. However, the English line held and the Normans were eventually forced to retreat. The fyrd, this time chased the Flemings down the hill. William ordered his knights to turn and attack the men who had left the line. Once again the English suffered many casualties.

William decided to take another rest. He had lost a quarter of his cavalry. Many horses had been killed and the ones left alive were exhausted. William decided that the knights should dismount and attack on foot. This time all the Normans went into battle together. The archers fired their arrows and at the same time the knights and infantry charged up the hill.

It was now four in the afternoon. Heavy English casualties from previous attacks meant that the front line was shorter. The Normans could now attack from the side. The few housecarls that were left were forced to form a small circle round the English standard. The Normans attacked again and this time they broke through the shield wall and Harold and most of his housecarls were killed.

The next day Harold's mother, Gytha, sent a message to William offering him the weight of the king's body in gold if he would allow her to bury it. He refused, declaring that Harold should be buried on the shore of the land which he sought to guard.

William and his army now marched on Dover where he remained for a week. He then went north calling in on Canterbury before arriving on the outskirts of London. He met resistance in Southwark and in an act of revenge set fire to the area. Londoners refused to submit to William so he turned away and marched through Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire. He revaged the countryside and by the end of the year the people of London, surrounded by devastated lands, submitted to William. On 25th December, 1066, William was crowned king of England by Aldred, Archbishop of York, at Westminster Abbey.

After his coronation in 1066, William claimed that all the land in England now belonged to him. However, those powerful lords, such as Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, who had not fought him, were allowed to redeem their lands back as a grant from William.

William retained about a fifth of this land for his own use. The rest was distributed to those men who had helped him defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Under the feudal system the 170 tenants-in-chief (or barons) had to provide armed men on horseback for military service. The number of knights a baron had to provide depended on the amount of land he had been given. The leading Norman landowners installed by William were Odo of Bayeux, Robert of Mortain, William Fitz Osbern, Geoffrey of Coutances and Richard Fitz Gilbert.

In 1067 William and his army went on a tour of England where he organised the confiscating of lands, built castles and established law and order. His chroniclers claim that he met no opposition during his travels around the country. After appointing his half-brother Odo of Bayeux, and William Fitz Osbern, as co-regents, William went to Normandy in March 1067.

While he was away, disturbances broke out in Kent, Herefordshire, and in the north of the country. William returned to England in December, 1067, and over the next few months the rebellions were put down. However, in 1068, another insurrection, led by Harold's sons, took place at Exeter. Once again he successfully defeated the rebels. Afterwards he built castles in Exeter and other key towns. This included Durham which was the scene of a rebellion in 1069.

William also had to deal with raids on the north led by King Sweyn of Denmark. In September 1069, Sweyn's fleet sailed into the Humber and burnt York. William's army forced the Danes to retreat and then crushed another uprising in Staffordshire. He then burnt crops, house and property of people living between York and Durham. The chroniclers claim that the area was turned into a desert and people died of starvation. The revolt finally came to an end when William's troops captured Chester in 1070.

William also reorganised the Church. Lanfranc became the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Three other bishops were deposed and by the end of 1070 only two sees were occupied by English bishops. William tended to appoint well educated men of good character to these posts.

In 1071 another revolt broke out. Led by Hereward the rebels captured the Isle of Ely. William personally led the Norman army against Hereward. He punished the rebels with mutilation and lifelong imprisonment and built a new castle at Ely.

William returned to Normandy in 1073 and later that year conquered Maine. While he was away Waltheof and Ralph, Earl of Norfolk began to conspire against him. Geoffrey of Coutances led the fight against the uprising and afterwards ordered that all rebels should have their right foot cut off.

On his return in 1076, Waltheof was executed - the only time capital punishment was inflicted on an English leader during his reign. The Earl of Norfolk managed to escape to Brittany.

In 1077 William's eldest son, Robert Curthose, suggested that he should become the ruler of Normandy and Maine. When the king refused, Robert rebelled and attempted to seize Rouen. The rebellion failed and Robert was forced to flee and established himself at Gerberoi. William besieged him there in 1080 but his wife, Matilda of Flanders, managed to persuade the two men to end their feud.

Odo of Bayeux had been left in control of England while William was in Normandy. In 1082 William heard complaints about Odo's behaviour. He returned to England and Odo was arrested and charged with misgovernment and oppression. Found guilty he was kept in prison for the next five years.

In 1083 William had to put down a rebellion led by Hubert de Beaumont in Maine. Two years later he returned to England to deal with a suspected invasion by King Cnut of Denmark. While waiting for the attack to take place he decided to order a comprehensive survey of his kingdom.

There were three main reasons why William decided to order a survey. (1) The information would help William discover how much the people of England could afford to pay in tax. (2) The information about the distribution of the population would help William plan the defence of England against possible invaders. (3) There was a great deal of doubt about who owned some of the land in England. William planned to use this information to help him make the right judgements when people were in dispute over land ownership.

William sent out his officials to every town, village and hamlet in England. They asked questions about the ownership of land, animals and farm equipment and also about the value of the land and how it was used. When the information was collected it was sent to Winchester where it was recorded in a book. About a hundred years after it was produced the book became known as the Domesday Book. Domesday means "day of judgement".

William's survey was completed in only seven months. When William knew who the main landowners were, he arranged a meeting for them at Salisbury. At this meeting on 1st August, 1086, he made them all swear a new oath that they would always obey their king.

In later life William became very fat. In 1087 William was told that King Philip of France described him as looking like a pregnant woman. William was furious and on mounted an attack on the king's territory. On 15th August he captured Mantes and set fire to the town. Soon afterwards he fell from his horse and suffered internal injuries.

William was taken to the priory of St. Gervase. Close to death, he directed that Robert Curthose should succeed him in Normandy and William Rufus should become king of England. He also ordered that his wealth should be distributed between the poor and the Church. William died on 9th September, 1087.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version E, entry for 1087.

King William and the chief men loved gold and silver and did not care how sinfully it was obtained provided it came to them. He (William) did not care at all how wrongfully his men got possession of land nor how many illegal acts they did.

(2) In his book Ecclesiastical History, Ordericus Vitalis described what happened after an English rebellion in the winter of 1069. (c. 1142)

In his anger William ordered that all crops and herds... and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes, so that the whole region north of Humber might be stripped of all means of survival.

(3) William of Jumieges, Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans (c. 1070)

William, Duke of Normandy, never allowed himself to be deterred from any enterprise because of the labour it entailed. He was strong in body and tall in stature. He was moderate in drinking, for he deplored drunkenness in all men. In speech he was fluent and persuasive, being skilled at all times in making clear his will. He followed the Christian discipline in which he had been brought up from childhood, and whenever his health permitted he regularly attended Christian worship each morning and at the celebration of mass.

(4) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

Duke William excelled both in bravery and soldier-craft. He dominated battles, checking his own men in flight, strengthening their spirit, and sharing their dangers.

William was a noble general, inspiring courage, sharing danger, more often commanding men to follow than urging them on from the rear. The enemy (at the Battle of Hastings) lost heart at the mere sight of this marvellous and terrible knight. Three horses were killed under him. Three times he leapt to his feet. Shields, helmets, hauberks were cut by his furious and flashing blade, while yet other attackers were clouted by his own shield.

(5) Pope Gregory VII made the following comments about William the Conqueror in a letter to a friend. (1081)

The king of England, though in certain respects he is not as religious as we would wish, still shows himself to be more acceptable than other kings... he neither destroys nor sells the churches of God.. and he bound priests by oath to dismiss their wives.

(6) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version E, entry for 1083.

He (William) made large forests for the deer, and passed laws, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but the king was so strong that he took no notice of them.

(7) Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

William the Conqueror... realised that death was imminent... The wise king ordered all his treasures to be distributed among the churches and the poor.

(8) Confession made by William the Conqueror on his deathbed in 1087. Quoted by Ordericus Vitalis in The Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

I tremble my friends/ when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience, and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was bred to arms from my childhood, and am stained from the rivers of blood I have shed... It is out of my power to count all the injuries which I have caused during the sixty-four years of my troubled life.