William The Conqueror life and biography

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William The Conqueror biography

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Falaise, France
Nationality : British
Category : Historian personalities
Last modified : 2010-09-21
Credited as : King of England, illegitimate duke of Normandy, Domesday Book compiled 1086

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William the Conqueror

"1066: In this year came William and conquered England." PARKER CHRONICLE

Illegitimate duke of Normandy, who successfully restored order to his duchy and went on to achieve the 1066 military conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.

* c. 1027 William born
* 1035 Became duke of Normandy
* 1035-46 Anarchy in Normandy during William's minority
* 1051 William supposedly offered the throne of England by Edward the Confessor
* 1066 Conquered England
* 1086 Domesday Book compiled
* 1087 William died on September 9

Early Life

Name variations: William the Bastard; William, Duke of Normandy; William, King of England. Born 1027 or 1028; died on September 9, 1087; illegitimate son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and Herleve (daughter of a prominent tanner of Falais); became duke of Normandy in 1035; married: Matilda of Flanders, c. 1052; children: (four sons) Robert Curthose, Richard, William Rufus, and Henry; (five or six daughters) Agatha, Constance, Adela, Cecilia, Adeliza(?), and Matilda(?). Predecessor: Duke Robert I or Normandy; King Harold Godwineson of England. Successor: Robert Curthose as duke of Normandy; William Rufus as king of England.

In 1066, the Norman duke William the Bastard became King William the Conqueror by his successful military venture against Anglo-Saxon England. To understand the career of one of the 11th century's leading men, it will be helpful to consult a portrait of his times. William's Normandy was the product of 10th-century Vikings who raided and obtained what is now northern France. By the 11th century, intermarriage with native French had produced a thoroughly blended Norse-French society. Normans--meaning "Northmen" and thereby recalling their Norse origin--were the military strongmen of 11th-century Europe who achieved successful exploits in Sicily, France, and, ultimately, Anglo-Saxon England.

Anglo-Saxon England was, in the 11th century, a dynamic, well-organized society that was nevertheless in the throes of an identity crisis, struggling to decide whether to be part of a northern Scandinavian realm or turn southward and share in the Christian civilization of the Continent. Early in the century, Danish King Canute conquered England. The throne later went to Edward, known as "the Confessor," whose childlessness was a significant factor in determining events of the 11th century.

Who was to be Edward's successor? His Norman background and pro-Norman policies made it conceivable that he intended the duke of Normandy to ascend the English throne upon his death; this is the tenor of the Norman contemporary sources. On the other hand, a powerful, native Anglo-Saxon family with strong Norse affiliations, the Godwinesons, considered themselves to be the rightful successors and challenged the Norman claim to the English throne. Thus, tension between Anglo-Scandinavian and Anglo-Norman parties characterized the entire first half of the 11th century, setting the stage for William's decisive moment in 1066.

William the Bastard was born in 1027 or 1028, the illegitimate son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and Herleve, daughter of a prominent tanner of Falais. Though Robert and Herleve never married, they produced a daughter, Adelaide, in addition to William. As Frank Barlow, one of William's prominent biographers, has pointed out: although such illicit relationships were common in the 11th century, William was not accepted by the social hierarchy without reprobation. His father Duke Robert married off his lover Herleve to a powerful vicomte, Herlwis of Conteville, and their marriage produced two half-brothers for William, Odo and Robert--both of whom would play important roles in William's later life. Duke Robert married the Danish King Canute's sister, but this marriage failed to produce any heirs; thus, when Robert decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1035, he convinced his nobles to accept the illegitimate William as his successor. To strengthen William's case, Robert obtained the support of his feudal overlord, King Henry I of France.

At 15, William Is Knighted

Robert died on the return journey from Jerusalem. His son William was then a boy of only seven or eight, and the political reality of rule by a minor was harsh: the Norman nobles expected, and got, a period of anarchy that lasted for at least the next nine years. The two guardians appointed over William both died violent deaths, and the duchy was subjected to ceaseless violence. But William's knighting in 1042 marked a turning point in favor of a strong ducal power; the 15-year-old William determined to play a more prominent role in Norman affairs.

At the time of his knighting, William was typical of the feudal leaders of his day: he was illiterate and trained almost exclusively in warfare. Yet he also understood the necessity of securing strong allies, and this awareness served him well throughout his early manhood. In 1046, he survived a strong rebellion by appealing to his feudal overlord King Henry I of France for assistance, and the two cooperated again in the 1051 venture against the powerful count of Anjou, Geoffrey Martel, against whom William's bravery and skill in battle were amply attested. (It is interesting to note that relations between William and his feudal overlord Henry I soured as William's power grew throughout the 1050s.) Though the Norman town of Alencon had supported Geoffrey Martel, he was forced to flee the city because of William's siege. During the siege, the townspeople had taunted William, hanging hides from the town walls inscribed with the insult "Hides for the tanner!" To avenge the slur on his mother's family, William savaged Alencon and mutilated many of its prominent citizens. Thus, he built a reputation for bravery and tenacity and was clearly a ruler to be feared.

William's talent for courting assistance from strong allies was exhibited in his 1049 marriage negotiations. He sought Matilda, daughter of the influential count Baldwin V of Flanders, who was also a great ally of King Henry I. But Pope Leo IX forbade the marriage on the grounds that the pair were too closely related. It is likely, however, that other considerations lay behind the papal ban: for Pope Leo IX was the supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, who was at odds with Baldwin and Henry I of France. Despite the ban, the marriage between William and the tiny Matilda--who apparently stood only four feet tall--took place in 1052 or 1053.

They produced many children: four sons and at least five or six daughters. Interestingly, there is no evidence that William had children outside the marriage; perhaps he was too sensitive to his own precarious position as "the Bastard." The Norman sources are unanimous in deeming this a happy marriage, although the Scandinavian King Harald's Saga implies that William ultimately kicked Matilda to death. Indeed, William's physical stature stood in great contrast to Matilda's. According to a monk of Caen who wrote soon after William's death in 1087: "He was great in body and strong, tall in stature but not ungainly."

Having fought campaigns to bring the rebellious Norman nobles under control, and strengthened by marriage to the Count of Flanders's daughter, by the early 1060s William had established himself in Western Europe as a power with which to be reckoned. Other factors, too, enhanced his position, such as the deaths of important opponents. For example, in 1060, King Henry I of France died, and William profited from the anarchy that accompanied the accession of the minor Philip I. William's enemy Geoffrey Martel, the count of Anjou, also died in 1060, allowing William to take advantage of the weakness of the new Angevin count by conquering Maine.

In addition, William's generally favorable relationship with the Church strengthened his position. He sought and received ecclesiastical support by way of his donations and by the appointment of his own family members to important ecclesiastical sees. For example, his half-brother Odo, still in his teens, was made bishop of Bayeux in 1049. Indeed, William's close ties to the Church paid off: in 1066, during the crisis initiated by the death of King Edward the Confessor, William received papal support for his invasion of England.

When Edward the Confessor died in early January of 1066, Earl Harold Godwineson was elected king by the English witan, or council. Writing after the event, Norman chroniclers strongly upheld William's claim to the English throne, based on his distant family ties (William was Edward's mother's great-nephew) and on a promise that Edward supposedly made to William back in 1051. In fact, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has William visiting Edward in England that year: "Then soon came duke William from beyond the sea with a great retinue of Frenchmen, and the king received him . . . and let him go again."

Harold Godwineson would not enjoy England's throne for long. He spent the summer preparing for the anticipated confrontation with William, but, when William's attack had not materialized by September, Harold felt free to send his army home. Learning that the colorful king of Norway, Harald Hardraade, had landed in the north, the English Harold hastily reassembled an army and moved north to engage. Though the English Harold defeated the Norwegian Harald at the battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, he received word shortly thereafter that the Norman landings in England had begun. Harold pushed his already exhausted army southward to meet the new threat.

William Conquers English at Hastings

On September 28, 1066, William landed an army of perhaps 7,000 men at Pevensey in southern England and occupied Hastings the next day. True, by the time Harold reached the Norman force his troops probably numbered slightly more than 7,000, but they were worn out by the recent battle at Stamford Bridge and the subsequent movement south. When the battle at Hastings commenced on October 14, William defeated the English by effectively employing archers and cavalry against the English infantry. During the battle, which is vividly portrayed in the famous Bayeux Tapestry (probably produced for Bishop Odo), Harold was killed. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the battle as follows:

As soon as his [William's] men were fit for service, they constructed a castle at Hastings. When King Harold was informed of this, he gathered together a great host, and came to oppose him at the grey apple tree, and William came upon him unexpectedly before his army was set in order. Nevertheless the King fought against him most resolutely with those men who wished to stand by him, and there was great slaughter on both sides. King Harold was slain . . . and many good men. The French had possession of the place of slaughter, as God granted them because of the nation's sins.

Again according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, several of the earls and bishops of England "submitted from force of circumstances . . . they gave him hostages and swore oaths of fealty, and he promised to be a gracious lord to them." On Christmas day, 1066, William was crowned king of the English by Archbishop Ealdred of Canterbury. But disturbances continued throughout the realm, and William's power was far from secure.

Although the most serious challenges to his power occurred between 1066 and 1071, the years 1075, 1078, and 1083 all witnessed revolts against William. The 1078 rebellion is noteworthy because its leading figure was Robert Curthose--William's eldest son. (Robert was reconciled to his father in 1079 but attempted another rebellion in 1083, and the two were never in accord after that.) William's brother Odo quarreled with the king in 1082, resulting in Odo's imprisonment until after William's death.

These persistent rebellions illustrate a significant feature of William's rule as duke of Normandy and king of England. His possessions in England and continental Europe were never secure from attack. For instance, King Philip I of France, who wished to separate Normandy from England, encouraged Robert Curthose in his 1078 revolt. While William fought his son in France in 1079, King Malcolm of Scotland raided northern England. In addition, the loyalty of Maine, conquered by William in 1063, remained a constant problem for him in the post-Conquest years. Thus, threats to William's continental possessions often necessitated the king's absence from England, and the kingdom's wealth was used to finance expeditions in defense of Normandy and other French possessions.

Such turmoil provided the context for several measures that characterized William's style of rule. First, he used earls-- enfeoffed with land to support their military obligations--to maintain security at his borders. Next, he insisted that such armies support the king's interests alone, rather than the private interests of the local leaders. We can see from the Domesday Book, commissioned in 1085 and carried out in 1086, the extent to which William altered the landholding patterns of England's nobility. William is listed, of course, as the major landholder of England, followed by his brother Odo. The Domesday survey was initiated to determine the taxable potentiality of England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

[William] sent his men all over England . . . to ascertain how many hundreds of "hides" of land there were in each shire, and how much land and live-stock the king himself owned in the country, and what the annual dues were lawfully his from each shire. He also had it recorded how much land his archbishops had, and his diocesan bishops, his abbots and his earls, and . . . what or how much each man who was a landholder here in England had in land or in live-stock. . . . So very thoroughly did he have the inquiry carried out that there was not a single "hide" . . . not even one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig which escaped notice in his survey.

England's nobility was altered by William's placement of military obligations on land grants to vassals and by his elevation of Norman families to high positions in England. Private armies were forbidden; castle building became a royal prerogative: such measures underscored William's ultimate feudal control over his kingdom. Indeed, William would remain an active military figure until his death.

Norman chroniclers record that in his later years William became obese. Specifically, he developed a large belly. The chronicler William of Malmesbury stated that King Philip I of France compared William to a pregnant woman about to give birth. During one of William's campaigns in the summer of 1087, he injured his abdomen on the pommel of his saddle, and, either through this injury or by some concurrent illness, became mortally ill.

The 60-year-old king lingered in great pain for over a month. The events of his death are given in two Norman chronicles. From the anonymous monk of Caen, we learn of the bequests that William made to the Church and to the poor, and of his plans for his sons to succeed him. Robert Curthose was acknowledged as duke of Normandy; William Rufus was to be heir to the English throne; and the youngest surviving son, Henry, was to receive 5,000 pounds of silver. According to Orderic Vitalis, who wrote half a century after William's death, the king sent William Rufus to England to lessen the likelihood of anarchy following his death; Henry immediately went off to supervise the collection of his inheritance; and Robert Curthose--estranged from his father since Matilda's death and his own revolt in 1083--was not present at William's deathbed. On September 9, 1087, William the Conqueror died alone.

Immediately following his death, Norman nobles fled to their estates, fearing that violence would threaten their holdings. According to the Norman chroniclers, preparations were made to transport the body to Saint Stephen's monastery in Caen for burial, but when the funeral mass was held, William's swollen corpse was too large for the tomb. In the struggle to fit the body into the stone sarcophagus, the pallbearers broke the corpse, and the entire church was filled with the odor of decomposition. As Orderic Vitalis poignantly implied, such was a sad final chapter in the life of such a strong, shrewd, and effective leader.

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