5 May 2010
King William the Conqueror of Normandy (1066–1087)
Reign 25 December 1066 – 9 September 1087
Coronation 25 December 1066
Predecessor Edgar Ætheling (uncrowned)
(otherwise) Harold II
Successor William II
Duke of the Normans
Reign 3 July 1035 – 9 September 1087
Predecessor Robert I the Magnificent
Successor Robert II Curthose
Consort Matilda of Flanders
Robert II, Duke of the Normans
Richard, Duke of Bernay
Adela, Countess of Blois
House Norman dynasty
Father Robert I, Duke of Normandy
Mother Herlette of Falaise
Born c. 1027
Died 9 September 1087 (aged c.60)
Convent of St. Gervais, Rouen
Burial Saint-Étienne de Caen, France
William the Conqueror (French: Guillaume le Conquérant) (c. 1027 or 1028 – 9 September 1087), also known as William I of England, was the King of England from Christmas, 1066 until his death. He was also William II, Duke of Normandy, from 3 July 1035 until his death. Before his conquest of England, he was known as “William the Bastard” because of the illegitimacy of his birth.
To press his claim to the English crown, William invaded England in 1066, leading an army of Normans, Bretons, Flemish people, and Frenchmen (from Paris and Île-de-France) to victory over the English forces of King Harold Godwinson (who died in the conflict) at the Battle of Hastings, and suppressed subsequent English revolts in what has become known as the Norman Conquest.
His reign, which brought Norman-French culture to England, had an impact on the subsequent course of England in the Middle Ages. The details of that impact and the extent of the changes have been debated by scholars for over a century. In addition to the obvious change of ruler, his reign also saw a programme of building and fortification, changes to the English language, a shift in the upper levels of society and the church, and adoption of some aspects of continental church reform.
William was born in Falaise, Normandy, the illegitimate and only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, who named him as heir to Normandy. His mother, Herleva (a name with several variant versions), who later married and bore two sons to Herluin de Conteville, was the daughter of Fulbert of Falaise. In addition to his two half-brothers, Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, William had a sister, Adelaide of Normandy, another child of Robert. Later in his life, the enemies of William are reported to have called him alternately “William the Bastard”, and deride him as the son of a tanner, and the residents of besieged Alençon hung animal skins from the city walls to taunt him.
William is believed to have been born in either 1027 or 1028, and more likely in the autumn of the later year. He was born the grandnephew of the English Queen, Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred the Unready and later, wife of King Canute the Great.
William’s illegitimacy affected his early life and he was known to contemporaries as ‘William the Bastard’. As a child, William’s life was in constant danger from his kinsmen who thought they had a more legitimate right to rule. One attempt on William’s life occurred while he slept at a castle keep at Vaudreuil, when the murderer mistakenly stabbed the child sleeping next to William. Nevertheless, when his father died, he was recognised as the heir.
Duke of Normandy
The castle of William, Château Guillaume-Le-Conquérant, in Falaise, Calvados, France.
By his father’s will, William succeeded him as Duke of Normandy at age seven in 1035. Plots by rival Norman noblemen to usurp his place cost William three guardians, though not Count Alan III of Brittany, who was a later guardian. William was supported by King Henry I of France, however. He was knighted by Henry at age 15. By the time William turned 19 he was successfully dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. With the assistance of Henry, William finally secured control of Normandy by defeating rebel Norman barons at Caen in the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047, obtaining the Truce of God, which was backed by the Roman Catholic Church. Against the wishes of Pope Leo IX, William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 in the Notre-Dame chapel of Eu castle, Normandy (Seine-Maritime). At the time, William was about 24 years old and Matilda was 22. William is said to have been a faithful and loving husband, and their marriage produced four sons and six daughters. In repentance for what was a consanguine marriage (they were distant cousins), William donated St Stephen’s Church (l’Abbaye-aux-Hommes.) and Matilda donated Holy Trinity church (Abbaye aux Dames).
Feeling threatened by the increase in Norman power resulting from William’s noble marriage, Henry I attempted to invade Normandy twice (1054 and 1057), without success. Already a charismatic leader, William attracted strong support within Normandy, including the loyalty of his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, who played significant roles in his life. Later, he benefited from the weakening of two competing power centers as a result of the deaths of Henry I and of Geoffrey II of Anjou, in 1060. In 1062 William invaded and took control of the county of Maine, which had been a fief of Anjou.
Claim to the English Throne
Upon the death of the childless Edward the Confessor, the English throne was fiercely disputed by three claimants—William; Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex; and the Viking King Harald III of Norway, known as Harald Hardrada. William had a tenuous blood claim through his great aunt Emma (wife of Ethelred and mother of Edward). William also contended that Edward, who had spent much of his life in exile in Normandy during the Danish occupation of England, had promised him the throne when he visited Edward in London in 1052. Further, William claimed that Harold had pledged allegiance to him in 1064: William had rescued the shipwrecked Harold from the count of Ponthieu, and together they had defeated Conan II, Count of Brittany. On that occasion, William had knighted Harold; he had also, however, deceived Harold by having him swear loyalty to William himself over the concealed bones of a saint.
In January 1066, however, in accordance with Edward’s last will and by vote of the Witenagemot, Harold Godwinson was crowned King by Archbishop Aldred.
Meanwhile, William submitted his claim to the English throne to Pope Alexander II, who sent him a consecrated banner in support. Then, William organised a council of war at Lillebonne and in January openly began assembling an army in Normandy. Offering promises of English lands and titles, he amassed at Dives-sur-Mer a huge invasion fleet, supposedly of 696 ships. This carried an invasion force which included, in addition to troops from William’s own territories of Normandy and Maine, large numbers of mercenaries, allies and volunteers from Brittany, north-eastern France and Flanders, together with smaller numbers from other parts of France and from the Norman colonies in southern Italy. In England, Harold assembled a large army on the south coast and a fleet of ships to guard the English Channel.
Fortuitously for William, his crossing was delayed by eight months of unfavourable winds. William managed to keep his army together during the wait, but Harold’s was diminished by dwindling supplies and falling morale. With the arrival of the harvest season, he disbanded his army on 8 September. Harold also consolidated his ships in London, leaving the English Channel unguarded. Then came the news that the other contender for the throne, Harald III of Norway, allied with Tostig Godwinson, had landed ten miles from York. Harold again raised his army and after a four-day forced march defeated Harald and Tostig on 25 September.
William the Conqueror invades England
On 12 September the wind direction turned and William’s fleet sailed. A storm blew up and the fleet was forced to take shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and again wait for the wind to change. On 27 September the Norman fleet finally set sail, landing in England at Pevensey Bay (Sussex) on 28 September. Thence William moved to Hastings, a few miles to the east, where he built a prefabricated wooden castle for a base of operations. From there, he ravaged the hinterland and waited for Harold’s return from the north.
William chose Hastings as it was at the end of a long peninsula flanked by impassable marshes. The battle was on the isthmus. William at once built a fort at Hastings to guard his rear against potential arrival of Harold’s fleet from London. Having landed his army, William was less concerned about desertion and could have waited out the winter storms, raided the surrounding area for horses and started a campaign in the spring. Harold had been reconnoitering the south of England for some time and well appreciated the need to occupy this isthmus at once.