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William I
William the Conqueror
1027/1028 - 1087

The English king William I, called the Conqueror, subjugated England in 1066 and turned this Saxon-Scandinavian country into one with a French-speaking aristocracy and with social and political arrangements strongly influenced by those of northern France.


William I was the illegitimate son of Robert I the Devil, Duke of Normandy, and Arletta, a tanner's daughter. Before going on pilgrimage in 1034, Robert obtained recognition of William as his successor, but a period of anarchy followed Robert's death in 1035. As he grew up, Duke William gradually established his authority; his victory over a rival at Val-e's-Dunes in 1047 made him master of Normandy. One chronicle relates that in 1051 or 1052 he visited his childless cousin king Edward the Confessor of England, who may have promised him the succession to the English throne.

About 1053 William married a distant relative, Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. She bore him four sons and four daughters, including Robert, Duke of Normandy; King William II; King Henry I; and Adela, Countess of Blois, mother of King Stephen.

William's military ability, ruthlessness, and political skill enabled him to raise the authority of the Duke of Normandy to an entirely new level and at the same time to maintain practical independence of his overlord, the king of France. William completed the conquest of Maine in 1063, and the next year he was recognized as overlord of Brittany.

Norman Conquest of England

In the same year, according to Norman sources, Harold, Earl of Wessex, son of Godwin, chief of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, fell into William's hands and was forced to swear to support William's claim to the English throne. Harold was nonetheless crowned king following the death of Edward on Jan. 6, 1066. William secured for his claim the sanction of the Pope, who was interested in correcting abuses in the English Church; at the same time, he ordered transports to be built and collected an army of adventurers from Normandy and neighbouring provinces. William was also in touch with Harold's exiled brother, who with the king of Norway attacked the north of England. Harold defeated these enemies at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 25, 1066, but his absence allowed William to land unopposed in the south three days later. Harold attempted to bar William's advance, but he was defeated and killed in the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066. After a brief campaign William was admitted to London and crowned king on Christmas Day.

In the next four years William and his Norman followers secured their position; after the last serious rising, in Yorkshire in 1069, he "fell upon the English of the North like a raging lion," destroying houses, crops, and livestock so that the area was depopulated and impoverished for many decades. William took over the old royal estates and a large part of the land confiscated from Saxon rebels. He kept for himself nearly a quarter of the income from land in the kingdom. About two-fifths he granted to his more important followers, to be held in return for the service of a fixed number of knights. This feudal method of landholding was common in northern France, but it was rare if not unknown in England before the Conquest.

Government of England

Claiming to be King Edward's rightful heir, William maintained the general validity of Anglo-Saxon law and issued little legislation; the so-called Laws of William (Leis Willelme) were not compiled until the 12th century. William also took over the existing machinery of government, which was in many ways more advanced than that of France. Local government was placed firmly under his control; earl and sheriff were his officers, removable at his will. He made use of an established land tax and a general obligation to military service.

William also controlled the Church. In 1070 he appointed Lanfranc, abbot of St. Stephen's Abbey at Caen, as archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc became William's trusted adviser and agent. The higher English clergy, bishops, and abbots were almost entirely replaced by foreigners. In a series of councils Lanfranc promulgated decrees intended to bring the English Church into line with developments abroad and to reform abuses. Though encouraging reforms, William insisted on his right to control the Church and its relations with the papacy. He controlled the elections of prelates; he would allow no pope to be recognized and no papal letter to be received without his permission; and he would not let bishops issue decrees or excommunicate his officials or tenants-in-chief without his order. About 1076 William rejected the demand of Pope Gregory VII that he should do fealty to the Roman Church for England, and the matter was dropped.

Domesday Book and Death

At Christmas, 1085, William ordered a great survey of England to be carried out, primarily in order to record liability to the land tax, or "geld." The results were summarized in the two great volumes known as the Domesday Book. Six months later, at a great gathering in Salisbury, William demanded oaths of fealty from all the great landowners, whether or not they were tenants-in-chief of the Crown. In this as in the Domesday survey, he was asserting rights as king over subjects, not simply as feudal lord over vassals.

Throughout his life William was involved in almost ceaseless campaigning: against rebels in Normandy and England, enemies in France, and the Welsh and the Scots. The Scottish king was forced to do homage to William in 1072. William died in Rouen, France, on Sept. 9, 1087. He was respected for his political judgment, his interest in Church reform, the regularity of his private life, and his efforts to maintain order. But above all he was feared; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that "he was a very stern and harsh man, so that no one dared do anything contrary to his will."


William ‘the Conqueror’ (1028-87), also known as William ‘the Bastard’, Duke of Normandy and King William I of England. As the only (if illegitimate) son, he succeeded Duke Robert at the age of 7 in 1035. During his minority Normandy fell into bloody anarchy during which three of his guardians were killed and his kinsmen murdered his personal tutor, which is perhaps why William remained illiterate. He began to assert his authority from about 1045, calling upon his feudal lord King Henri I of France to assist him in subduing rebellious barons, finally defeating their assembled forces near Caen in 1047. He is described as of average but robust build, tending to corpulence as he grew older, and of the savage and despotic disposition necessary to impose his will on a duchy in which, perhaps because of Viking blood, there was a high state of latent or actual violence.

He also had a peasant's Christian faith and founded several monasteries, although his use of prelates as his representatives was politically shrewd. In 1049 the pope, at the behest of the western emperor, declared his marriage to the daughter of Baldwin of Flanders incestuous and among other penances he undertook was to go on a crusade. So it was that his invasion of England, where the church was schismatic, was officially a crusade and a papal banner flew over the Norman knights at Hastings. The dynastic background to the invasion was complex and its prelude was the subject of propaganda of which the Bayeux Tapestry forms an enduring part. William had been promised the throne by the childless Edward ‘the Confessor’ (1042-66), who may have subsequently changed his mind: it was said that on his deathbed he supported the succession of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. Harold himself, however, was alleged to have sworn an oath on holy relics to support William's claim. This made his assumption of the throne on Edward's death, in the eyes of William and his supporters, an act of blasphemous usurpation which earned papal blessing for the invasion of England.

The invasion served three purposes: it united his fractious nobles in a cause dear to their warlike hearts, it bought a blessing from the pope on his marriage and legitimacy for his children, and—one should not underestimate the contemporary power of this—it enforced the homage done to him by the usurper Harold. It certainly would appear that his venture had divine blessing, for he failed in his first attempt to cross and thus landed a week after Harold had defeated Haraldr Haršrįša, the last of the great Viking invaders, and his own brother Tostig, at Stamford Bridge. Thus it was a tired and depleted Saxon army that William only just defeated. Had he landed first, he would probably have fared as ill as Haršrįša. The subjugation of England went on for the rest of his reign, punctuated by rebellions and intrigue among his own relatives and nobles on both sides of the Channel. In 1072 he invaded Scotland and in 1081 Wales, and he had the brilliant idea of settling his more turbulent vassals in the northern and western ‘marches’, where they could indulge their combativeness while protecting the rest of the kingdom.

By eliminating the native aristocracy, the Normans achieved something akin to Sparta in subjugating Messenia: they created a huge helot class that left them free to hone their martial skills. The Channel, and the fact that William owed no man homage for his new kingdom, meant that the social structure thus created proved very durable. He was owed homage for every inch of his new kingdom, and the famous Domesday Book was an inventory of his new property. But he did not value it particularly highly—he spent the bulk of the rest of his life fighting in France and left England to his second son, while the eldest got Normandy and Maine.










This web page was last updated on: 17 December, 2008