William I of England

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William I the Conqueror
King of the English; Duke of Normandy
The Duke of Normandy in the Bayeux Tapestry
The Duke of Normandy in the Bayeux Tapestry
Reign December 25, 1066–September 9, 1087
Coronation December 25, 1066
Predecessor Harold II
Normandy: Robert II the Magnificent
Successor William II Rufus
Normandy: Robert III Curthose
Consort Matilda of Flanders (1031–1083)
Robert III Curthose
William II Rufus
Adela, Countess of Blois
Henry I Beauclerc
among others...
Father Robert II the Magnificent
Mother Herlette of Falaise
Born 1027–1028
Falaise, France
Died September 9, 1087
Convent of St. Gervais, Rouen
Saint-Étienne de Caen, France

William of Normandy (French: Guillaume de Normandie) (1028 – September 9, 1087), also known as William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquérant) and William the Bastard (Guillaume le Bâtard), was the Duke of Normandy from 1035 to 1087, and King of England from 1066 to 1087. In the present nomenclature, William was Duke of Normandy as William II and King of England as William I.

William invaded England with his band of Normans, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, seized the country and brutally suppressed subsequent English revolts in what has become known as the Norman Conquest. No authentic portrait of William has been found but he was described as a muscular man, strong in every sense of the word, balding in front, and of regal dignity.

In English memory, the Norman Conquest represents a defining moment, bringing to an end one phase of English history and launching another. The Normans were seen by the English as foreigners who took over their country and imposed feudalism on the comparatively free, democratic and meritocratic Anglo-Saxon society. Another consequence was that for several centuries, French was the language of the rulers of England, the language of the law courts and the language of government. The Normans built most of the castles to be found in England and Wales to protect themselves from the people they ruled. The conquest left the class system as a legacy that only started to fade away in the past 50 years. It also strengthened the power of the monarch by disenfranchizing the traditional English aristocracy. The conquest marked the end of England's lack of involvement in European affairs, and started a period of European entanglement in which relations between the English and French rulers and nobility became much more complex. For the next five centuries, England would become embroiled in contests for French territory based on royal blood-line claims derived from William I. A certain antagonism between France and England has continued until the present day.

After several centuries English and French culture blended—there was intermarriage and the English language absorbed the French vocabulary. Eventually, under Elizabeth I, England would turn its attention away from the Continent and instead embark on overseas exploration and colonization.

Early life

The sole son of Robert the Magnificent and Herleva, most likely the daughter of a local tanner named Fulbert, William was born illegitimate in Falaise, Normandy. The exact date of birth is uncertain, but is known to have been either in 1027 or 1028, and more likely in the autumn of the latter year.[1] He was the grandnephew of Queen Emma, wife of King Ethelred the Unready and later of King Canute.

William succeeded to his father's Duchy of Normandy at the young age of seven in 1035, and was known as Duke William II of Normandy (French Guillaume II, duc de Normandie). He lost three guardians to plots to usurp his place. Count Alan of Brittany was a later guardian. King Henry I of France knighted him at the age of 15. By the time he turned 19, he was successfully dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. With the assistance of King Henry, William finally secured control of Normandy by defeating the rebel Norman barons at Caen in the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047.

He married his cousin, Matilda of Flanders, against the wishes of Pope Leo IX, in 1053, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Eu, Normandy (now in Seine-Maritime). At the time, William was 26 and Matilda was 22. Their marriage produced four sons and six daughters.

His half-brothers, Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, played significant roles in his life. He also had a sister, Adelaide of Normandy.

Conquest of England

English succession

Upon the death of William's cousin, King Edward the Confessor of England (January 1066), William claimed the throne of England, asserting that the childless and purportedly celibate Edward had named him his heir during a visit by William (probably in 1052). Even if Edward had done this, he did not have the authority to do so as it was the Witenagemot that decided who was to be the king. He also claimed that Harold Godwinson, England's foremost magnate and brother-in-law of the late King Edward, had pledged his support while shipwrecked in Normandy in 1064. Harold was supposed to have made this pledge while in captivity and was reportedly tricked into swearing on a saint's bones that he would support William's claim to the throne. Even if this story is true, however, Harold would have made the promise under duress and so would not have been not obliged to keep it. In any case, by the mid 1050s, Harold was effectively ruling England through the weak King Edward and was unlikely to surrender the throne to a foreign noble.

The vacancy of the English crown, which was left after Edward the Confessor died, was be ferociously disputed by three European figures (William, Harold, and Viking King Harald III of Norway). In January 1066, by Edward's last will, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England as Harold II by the Witenagemot, and immediately the new monarch raised a large fleet of ships and mobilized a force of militia, arranging these around the coasts to anticipate attack from several directions.

Norman invasion

The first would-be attacker was Tostig Godwinson, Harold's brother, but he was successfully defeated by Edwin, Earl of Mercia at a battle on the south bank of the Humber.

Meanwhile, William submitted his claim to the English throne to Pope Alexander II, who sent him a consecrated banner in support. Then, William organized a council of war at Lillebonne and openly began assembling an army in Normandy, consisting of his own army, French mercenaries, and numerous foreign knights who expected plunder or English land. To each man, William promised both lands and titles of nobility after their victory. William gained the support from many knights and gathered a considerable army of 600 ships and 7,000 men at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. But because of the heavy militia presence on the south coast of England and the fleet of ships guarding the English Channel, it looked as if he might fare little better than Tostig.

However, once the harvest season arrived, Harold withdrew the militia on September 8 because of falling morale and dwindling supplies, and he consolidated the ships in London, leaving the English Channel unguarded. Then came the news that Harald III of Norway had landed ten miles from York with Tostig, which forced Harold and his army to head north. After a victory against the forces of Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford, Harald and Tostig were defeated by Harold's army at the slaughterous Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25.

Weeks of unfavorable weather affected the English Channel, delaying William's departure but granting Harold additional time. William arrived with his army in Pevensey Bay (Sussex) on September 28, and then he moved to Hastings, a few miles to the east, where he built a prefabricated wooden castle for a base of operations.

King Harold Godwinson was in the north of England and had just defeated another rival, Harald III of Norway, supported by his own brother Tostig. He marched an army of similar size to William's 250 miles in nine days to challenge him at the crucial battle of Senlac, which later became known as the Battle of Hastings. This took place on October 14, 1066. According to some accounts, perhaps based on an interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the Norman victory, Harold was allegedly killed by an arrow through the eye, and the English forces fled, giving William victory.

English resistance

For two weeks, William waited for a formal surrender of the English throne, but the Witenagemot proclaimed the quite young Edgar Ætheling instead, without coronation. Thus, William's next target was London, approaching proudly through the important territories of Kent, via Dover and Canterbury, inspiring fear in the English. However, at London, William's advance was beaten back at London Bridge, and he decided to march westward and to storm London from the northwest. After receiving continental reinforcements, William crossed the Thames at Wallingford, and there he forced the surrender of Archbishop Stigand (one of Edgar's main supporters), in early December. William reached Berkhamsted a few days later where Ætheling relinquished the English crown personally and the exhausted Saxon noblemen of England surrendered definitively. Although William was then acclaimed as the King of England, he requested being crowned at London. As William I, he was formally crowned on Christmas day 1066, in Westminster Abbey, by Archbishop Aldred.

This was the defining moment of what is now known as the Norman Conquest. Unable to enter London, William traveled to Wallingford, was welcomed in by Wigod who supported his cause. This is where the first submissions took place, including that of the Archbishop of Canterbury.[2] The remaining Anglo-Saxon noblemen surrendered to William at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire and he was acclaimed King of England there. William was then crowned on December 25, 1066, in Westminster Abbey.

Although the south of England submitted quickly to Norman rule, resistance in the north continued for six more years until 1072. During the first two years, King William I suffered many revolts throughout England (Dover, western Mercia, Wales, Exeter). In 1068, Harold's illegitimate sons attempted an invasion of the southwestern peninsula but were defeated by William. The worst crisis came from Northumbria, which had not submitted to William's rule. In 1068, both Mercia and Northumbria revolted together with Ætheling. William could suppress these, but Ætheling went to Scotland where Malcolm protected him. Furthermore, Malcolm married Ætheling's sister Margaret stressing the English balance of power against William. Under such circumstances, Northumbria rebelled, besieging York. Then, the Danes disembarked with a large fleet at Northumbria, claiming the English crown for their King Sweyn II. Scotland joined the rebellion as well. The rebels easily captured York. However, William could contain them at Lincoln. After dealing with a new wave of revolts at western Mercia, Exeter, Dorset, and Somerset, William defeated his northern foes decisively at the River Aire, retrieving York, while the Danish army promised to depart.

William then devastated Northumbria between the Humber and Tees rivers, with his Harrying of the North. The region ended absolutely deprived, losing its traditional autonomy toward England. Then, the Danish king disembarked in person, readying his army to restart the war, but William suppressed such threat with a payment of gold. Subsequently in 1071, William defeated the last rebel focus of the north through an improvised pontoon, subduing the Ely island at which the Danes led by Hereward the Wake had gathered. In 1072, he invaded Scotland, defeating Malcolm and gaining a temporary peace. In 1074, Ætheling submitted definitively to William. In 1075, during William's absence, the Revolt of the Earls was confronted successfully by Odo. In 1080, William sent his half brothers Odo and Robert, who stormed Northumbria and Scotland, respectively. Eventually, the Pope protested against the excessive mistreatment which had been exerted by the Normans against the English people. It is estimated that one-fifth of the population of England was killed during these years by war, massacre, and starvation.

William's reign

William spent much time (11 years, since 1072) in Normandy, ruling England through writs. Still a vassal state nominally owing its entire loyalty to the French king, Normandy suddenly rose up as a powerful region, alarming the other French Dukes which reacted by attacking it persistently. As Duke of Normandy, William wanted to conquer Brittany, for which the French King Philip I admonished him. Nonetheless, in 1086, William invaded Brittany, forcing the flight of the Duke Alan IV. A peace treaty was signed, and William betrothed Constance (who was poisoned few years later) to Alan.

William initiated many major changes. In 1085, in order to ascertain the extent of his new dominions and maximize taxation, William commissioned the compilation of the Domesday Book, a survey of England's productive capacity similar to a modern census. That he was able to do this so quickly and accurately was due to the sophistication of the Anglo-Saxon institutions of government which at the time were more advanced than any other European country. William also ordered many castles, keeps, and mottes, among them the Tower of London, to be built across England to ensure that the rebellions by the English people or his own followers would not succeed. William is said to have eliminated the native aristocracy in as little as four years. Systematically, he despoiled those English aristocrats who either opposed the Normans or who died without issue.

Thus, most English estates and titles of nobility were handed to Norman noblemen. Many English aristocrats fled to Flanders and Scotland, others may have been sold into slavery overseas. Some ended up in Umayyad Spain and Moorish lands. Ownership of nearly all land in England and titles to religious and public offices were given to Normans. Many surviving Anglo-Saxon nobles emigrated to other European kingdoms. By 1086, the indigenous nobility maintained control of just 8 percent of its original land-holdings. However, to the new Norman noblemen, William handed the English parcels of land piecemeal, dispersing these wide. Thus nobody would easily conspire against him without jeopardizing their own estates within an unstable England. This effectively strengthened William's political power as monarch. His conquest also led to Norman replacing English as the language of the ruling classes for nearly three hundred years. This is why Anglo-Saxon words such as cow and sheep were used by the peasants who farmed the livestock but when the meat reached the noblemen's tables the food became beef and mutton.

Death, burial, and succession

William died at the age of 59, at the Convent of St Gervais, near Rouen, France, on September 9, 1087, from abdominal injuries received from his saddle pommel when he fell off a horse at the Siege of Mantes. While on his deathbed, William pardoned many of his political adversaries. He was buried in the church of St. Stephen in Caen, Normandy. In a most undignified postmortem, his corpulent body would not fit into the stone sarcophagus, and burst after some unsuccessful prodding by the assembled bishops, filling the chapel with a foul smell and dispersing the mourners.[3]

William was succeeded in 1087, as King of England by his younger son William Rufus and as Duke of Normandy by his elder son Robert Curthose. This led to the Rebellion of 1088. His youngest son Henry also became King of England later, after William II was killed by an English archer without a child to succeed him.


Diagram based on the information found on Wikipedia

Every English monarch down to Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror as well as Alfred the Great.

Children of William and Matilda

There is some discussion over how many daughters William actually had. This list includes some entries which are obscure.

  1. Robert Curthose (1054–1134), Duke of Normandy, married Sybil of Conversano, daughter of Geoffrey of Conversano
  2. Adeliza (or Alice) (1055–?), reportedly betrothed to Harold II of England (Her existence is in some doubt.)
  3. Cecilia (or Cecily) (1056–1126), Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen
  4. William Rufus (1056–1100), King of England
  5. Richard (1057–1081), killed by a stag in New Forest
  6. Adela (1062–1138), married Stephen, Count of Blois
  7. Gundred (1063–1085), married William de Warenne (1055–1088) Some scholars question whether Gundred was an illegitimate child of William I or merely a step-daughter, foundling, or adopted daughter.
  8. Agatha (1064–1080), betrothed to (1) Harold of Wessex, (2) Alfonso VI of Castile
  9. Constance (1066–1090), married Alan IV Fergent, Duke of Brittany; poisoned, possibly by her own servants
  10. Matilda (very obscure, her existence is in some doubt)
  11. Henry Beauclerc (1068–1135), King of England, married (1) Edith of Scotland, daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scotland, (2) Adeliza of Louvain


  1. History of the Monarchy, William I "The Conqueror" (r. 1066-1087). Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  2. David Nash Ford, Wallingford: Saxon Planning Lives On. Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  3. History House, William the Conqueror. Retrieved June 5, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bates, David. William the Conqueror. London: G. Philip. 1989. ISBN 0540011754.
  • Douglas, David C. William the Conqueror: the Norman Impact Upon England. New Haven, CT: Yale University. 1999. ISBN 0300078846.
  • Howarth, David. 1066 The Year of the Conquest. New York: Penguin, 1981. ISBN 0140058508.
  • Prescott, Hilda Frances Margaret. Son of Dust. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2007. ISBN 9780829423525.
  • Savage, Anne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1983. ISBN 0312037406.

External links

All links retrieved May 9, 2023.


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