William the Conqueror is best known for his invasion of England in 1066. In the years that followed he conquered England, made agreements in Wales and turned the Scottish King into a vassal. His territory in Normandy was also large, making him one of Europe’s most powerful men. William’s life was one in which war and conflict were never far away. He endured a childhood in which others battled to seize his title and lands. William fought wars against his neighbours in France. The invasion of England was followed by several years of conquest. There followed rebellions, revolts and counter invasions of England. Normandy saw it’s borders attacked, one such war with the French leading to his death in 1087.
Biography of William of Normandy
William was born in Normandy in 1028. His father was Robert, Duke of Normandy and his mother was Herleva, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Falaise. As Robert and Herleva never married, William was therefore an illegitimate son: although he was Robert’s only child.
Despite his illegitimacy William was accepted by most of the Norman barons as the heir to the duchy of Normandy. In 1035, William succeeded his father, who had passed away whilst returning from the Crusades.
His early life was fraught with danger. There were many Normans, including many within his own family, who would have preferred to have a different ruler. His survival during this period was largely due to the support given to him by his mother’s family.
William began to take control of his Duchy in earnest during his teens. Normandy had been through a period of anarchy following his fathers death and William was quick to learn that trust could not be taken for granted. This led to a series of conflicts within Normandy and against his closest neighbours that, in turn, led to William becoming a gifted knight and warrior.
William was in the 1050’s threatened by both the King of France and the Count of Anjou, both significant players in contemporary French politics. Williams political guile at the time was second to none however and, despite the Pope refusing to accept it, William married Matilda of Flanders, a close relation of his. This marriage secured the support of Flanders and enabled Normandy to stave off the threats from the French king, Henry and of Geoffrey of Anjou. Not until 1060, and the timely deaths of both of these hostile leaders, was William able to feel secure in his tenure and begin to create a Norman empire.
William seized advantage of his neighbours lack of leadership, France now had a young boy as king, and attacked and conquered the region of Maine (1063). Now William could turn his thoughts towards England, where greater prizes lay in store for him.
In 1051, Edward, the aging and childless King of England, had fallen out with his father in law: the Earl of Wessex. Most probably as a result of this fall out, William was suggested as Edward’s heir to the throne. Prior to Edward’s death in 1066 however, there had been a change of heart. Edward named Harold of Wessex (the old Earl’s son) as his heir. Upon the death of the King, several days later, William found that his inheritance had been snatched away from him and given to Harold of Wessex. This led to there being several claimants to the throne in 1066 and confusion as to the legitimacy of each claim.
The sequence of events that followed is well documented elsewhere. In brief, William claimed that on a visit to Normandy in 1064, Harold of Wessex had sworn allegiance to William and promised that he would support him in his claim to the throne. Whether or not this statement was made by Harold is very hard to prove. William used this to gain support amongst European leaders and the church. Harold was a false king, a thief and a usurper. Through this line of argument William gained the support of many nobles in many parts of Europe. The offer of riches and reward upon his rightful succession to the English throne, no doubt, also influenced people when offering their support for the Duke of Normandy. To take what was rightfully has, William prepared for the invasion of England. A massive risk, with everything to lose if he was unsuccessful.
William’s Norman fleet, supported by a large number of Bretons and men from Flanders, set sail across the Channel and landed at Pevensey, near Hastings. The success of his mission was incredible. A mixture of luck and excellent leadership resulted in the Norman Duke defeating Harold and taking hold of England. The illegitimate son of a Norman Duke had now turned the tables, he was now a King.
It is in the years after the famous battle of Hastings that Williams strength of character and determination are most visible. For 5 years he faced rebellion after rebellion in England. His forces dealt clinically with each of these and enforced the new, Norman, order with terrifying brutality. New structures of Government, laws and taxation regimes were established across the country and, by the early 1070’s, William’s rule in England was nigh on unassailable from within.
In this period William made great use of his closest allies. His half brother, Odo, was granted great powers in Normandy whilst William was absent from the duchy and his barons had huge responsibilities within the lands that they were granted. William became merciless in his dealings, the church was stripped of it’s bishops who were rapidly replaced with men of William’s liking, local thanes were stripped of their land, often regardless of whether or not they had opposed William’s conquest.
Read more about the Church in Norman England
Such was the force behind the conquest that by the 1080’s William was in a position to take stock of his achievements. His vision and understanding of how to control a population becoming ever more clear. The Domesday Book catalogued most manors within the country, providing the Monarchy with a previously unthought of amount of information about the value of each person. Economically this is a major step forwards in terms of taxation and centralisation of the nations resources. (Although its purpose was to establish how he could pay for his growing army when faced by a potential invasion from Denmark in 1085). The on-going process of castle building demonstrates his determination to dominate the population, enabling his regime to be implemented quickly and, from 1071 onwards, without being openly questioned.
It is a mistake however to view William as suddenly becoming English. Most of his time was spent in Normandy. England was a much treasured prize, not his home. Normandy itself remained under threat from her neighbours. His growing empire was threatened by the Scandinavian Kings, and so William was occupied for much of the time with further wars and endless diplomacy.
It was during one of his many campaigns against the French kings that William lost his life. Having attacked the town of Marne, William was fatally injured whilst pillaging the town. He died in September of 1087, leaving his Duchy to Robert, his eldest son and England to William (Rufus) his second eldest surviving son. This act demonstrates what William considered to be his most prized possession: England, most certainly, was not that!
Even in death though William was not beyond causing a commotion. His body, swollen by several years of excessive eating and drinking, proved too large for the stone coffin in which he was to be buried and burst, leaving his remains on the floor of the chapel.
William’s invasion and conquest of England is one of the most significant series of events in British History. The force that landed on the south coast was the beginning of a Norman rule over England and domination of large parts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Find out about the Norman monarchs and key features of Society during the Norman era from the menu below.
|William the Conqueror||William Rufus||King Henry I|
|Claimants to the throne||Battle of Fulford||Battle of Stamford Bridge|
|The Battle of Hastings|
The Norman Church
|Robert of Jumieges||Stigand||Odo of Bayeux|
|William de Corbeil||Theobald||Article: Anglo-Norman Church|