• A London Student

William I - A Conqueror

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

This post marks the start of a series of posts on Kings and Queens of England in the High and Late Middle Ages (from 1066-1485). Once England has been completed, I will turn to do similar ground work on other countries. (In theory!)


William of Normandy became duke in 1035 aged seven or eight, when his father, Duke Robert the Magnificent died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem leaving his son and only heir in charge. However, as many people know William was in fact the Duke's illegitimate son, which caused a large amount of friction between Norman Lords and resulted in several murder attempts on William's life and successful murders of his tutors and guardians throughout his childhood. 


The marriage of William of Normandy and Matilda of Flanders was a very good match for both sides, although the Holy Roman Emperor was strongly against it. Whilst William's mother had been the daughter of a mere tanner, Matilda's was a French Princess, Adela of France (and her father was Count Baldwin V of Flanders). Matilda and William got married after 1050, (however, there are many dates given of when this actually was so if anyone has more information, then please comment!) Matilda was no older than nineteen at the time of the wedding, whereas William would’ve been in his twenties.


Dates of the births of the couple's children are a bit of a mystery, and even how many children the couple actually had as well, but there seems to have been about ten in total. Their children were:

  • Robert (born about 1051,died 1134) to become Duke of Normandy

  • Adeliza (born around 1053, died before 1094) who was probably a nun of St Léger at Préaux

  • Constance (born 1053-55 died 1190) who married the Duke of Brittany

  • Cecilia (born 1054-56 died 1127) who was Abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen

  • Richard (born before 1056 died in about 1075)

  • Agatha (born 1056 latest) who was betrothed probably three times including to Harold II of England but died unmarried... Very little is known about her

  • William Rufus (born between 1056 and 1160, died 1100) who would become William II of England

  • Matilda (born around 1061, died about 1086)

  • Adela (born about 1067, died 1137) who married Stephen of Blois. For more info, view my post about her

  • Henry (born 1068, died 1135) who would succeed his brother as Henry I of England


It was in 1051 that William claimed he was called to England by Edward the Confessor, who might have known him as a child and was aware of his military prowess. Edward the Confessor was known to be Pro-Norman, having styled his court on the Norman model, and did have Norman sympathies. However, this was not the only significant event of the 1050's, as problems erupted in the nearby Anjou and Kingdom of France as well as religiously. Anjou and France had created an alliance, which had the potential to cause problems for William, and making his alliance with Flanders essential and Normandy's position unstable. Geoffrey Martel Count of Anjou had recently over taken the County of Maine and was in a position to do the same to Normandy with the help of the French crown.


In the eyes of the church, it wasn't until about 1059 before Pope Nicholas II formally recognised the marriage of Matilda and William, after William had sent him some soldiers to help overthrow Pope Benedict X, the successor to Leo IX who had died in 1054. This was a large relief to William, who had suffered interdict in 1054 or 1055 but had been defying bishops and higher level clergy to prevent war with Flanders, so that he could keep his wife and so that his children could remain legitimate. As a result of the decision, in their gratitude, both Matilda and William vowed to construct an Abbey, a promise that they both kept.


During this time, in England, Harold Godwinson was rapidly rising in favour and there was much speculation that he would be named as the Confessor's successor...


In 1063, William further established his name by annexing Maine and betrothing the heiress Margaret to his son Robert, before setting his sights on England, as one of the most esteemed rulers of Europe. However, in 1064, Harold Godwinson was shipwrecked on his way to see William, and was welcomed as a guest to William's court according to the Bayeux Tapestry, where, at the end of his visit, Harold was betrothed to probably Agatha, who was too young to get married at the time. However, this plan was abandoned in early 1066 when Harold instead married Edith of Mercia, the widow of Gruffudd ap Llewellyn. On Edward the Confessor's death on 5th January 1066, Harold Godwinson claimed that on his deathbed, the Confessor had elected him as his successor, so Harold Godwinson became King of England.


William had proved himself to be a capable commander who was a lethal opponent in battle, and was experienced by previous wars with neighbouring Counts and Dukes, most of which he had won. While Harold's brother Tostig was raiding the South Coast of England, and later Lincolnshire (aided by William's father-in-law, Count Baldwin of Flanders), William started to prepare for invasion. His force of ships were mostly built from scratch, and were ready in August, although winds kept the fleet in Normandy until late September. Harold meanwhile was building defences across the South Coast, and gathering an army. There was also a tactical element of waiting to late September before the invasion; Harold had kept his army up throughout the summer, but at the start of Harvest on September 8th, he disbanded it, giving William a clear landing (the threat of Norwegian invasion from the North was another factor that led to the South Coast being left unguarded).


Earls Morcar and Edwin were defeated at the Battle of Fulford, against Harold Hardrada and Tostig, so Harold Godwinson marched north, and gained a victory at Stamford Bridge on September 25. Leaving a proportion of his army in the North, with Morcar and Edwin, he marched South again, to where William had landed at Pevensey Bay on September 28. Given that no army had appeared to confront William, he moved East to Hastings and set up a Castle and base there while awaiting the battle that could win him a crown. Harold finally arrived and took up position on Senlac Hill (now the location of Battle Abbey). William advanced and the Battle of Hastings took place on October 14. The English had taken up a strong position in a shield wall, which initially repelled Norman cavalry with heavy casualties, to the point where some of his army started fleeing as rumour swept through the ranks that William had been killed. However, William rallied the army and caught the Saxon's in disarray as they left their positions to chase the Normans. Harold was killed in a later stage of the battle, and William was King in name, although ruling a usurped Kingdom was another matter.


William moved to capture towns like Dover, Canterbury and Winchester, before advancing to London in late November, finding plenty of time to burn and pillage along the way. At Berkhampsted, Edgar the Ætheling, Morcar, Edwin, and Ealdred submitted to him, and he was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. Whilst stripping Harold's relations of their titles, he placated Lords with lands and titles. In March, he returned to Normandy (taking the Anglo-Saxon Nobles mentioned above with him for obvious reasons). The Norman Church had done very well in his ascension, as he had replaced all but one Anglo-Saxon Bishop, and was a genuinely very religious monarch, who wanted the church free of corruption. In December 1067, he had to return to England as the rebellions started. As a result William was ruthless, dealing with revolts in Welsh Marches, Devon and Cornwall with shocking brutality. He fortified borders, creating the Welsh Marches and new campaigns like the Harrying of the North. That it was necessary was not the question, as keeping a Kingdom was always going to be much harder than winning it, although the systematic devastation of Mercia and Northumbria would cause a famine that would last for nine years, and claim thousands of lives.


In 1070, as the devastation of the North gradually drew to a close, there were further issues with King Sweyn of Denmark, who had been assisting rebels in most rebellions of previous times. Once that had been dealt with, William returned to the continent where Le Mans had revolted again and there was dispute over the Duchy of Flanders, where Count Baldwin had died, leaving his widow with two young sons and a disputed regency. Baldwin's widow had married William fitzOsbern, who was in Normandy, but when he was killed in early 1071, Baldwin's brother, Robert seized power. Robert was opposing William's power on the continent, and meant that William had another problem to sort out as well as losing a powerful ally in Count Baldwin. Also in 1071, the last true rebellion of the North occurred: Earl Edwin had been betrayed by his own men, and was dead, and Morcar was captured, imprisoned and had his earldom taken from him. In 1072, he invaded Scotland, after King Malcolm III had gradually been encroaching into England, and signed the Treaty of Abernethy later that year, accepting one of Malcom's sons as hostage.


As you can tell, William was quite busy.


Not much happened until 1075, when there was (you guessed it!) another revolt. This one was led by the Earls of Norfolk and Hereford. This time William didn't leave Normandy, probably due to the fact that rebellions and revolts had become a basic part of everyday life, and left this rebellion to his regents in England. These regents managed to bottle up Hereford in his stronghold in Hereford and Norfolk in Norwich. Naturally, the revolting Earls turned to Denmark for some help, although it arrived too late, by which point Norfolk had fled to Brittany, so the Danes satisfied themselves by raiding the South Coast (as you do) before returning home. When the Danish complication to the rebellion presented itself, William left Normandy (leaving his very capable Queen, Matilda, in charge) and dealt with the aftermath of the rebellion, imprisoning the Earl of Hereford. At this point he had to go back to Normandy where the Earl of Norfolk had decided to continue his rebellion from Brittany.


After the Earl had gained control of the Castle of Dol in 1076, William advanced into Brittany and laid siege to the Castle. The rebel Earl now gained himself an useful ally (not the Danes) in King Philippe I of France, who defeated William in the Battle of Dol. This was William's first defeat in a battle, although it changed very little in the grand scheme of things. Later that year, there was an unsuccessful Angvien attack on Maine, and one other event of merit. The Count of Amiens was retiring to become a monk, and had handed over the Vexin to Philippe. The Vexin was a small piece of land between Normandy and the French Royal Domain, and was as a result of vast importance. The Count of Amiens had been a supporter of William, and the French Crown now owning the Vexin would be a source of strife of latter English Monarchs. William was however a skilful ruler who decided to make peace with the Angviens and France in late 1077.


During this time, a new strife began between William and his eldest son, Robert, who was probably feeling powerless (a pattern that would be seen with many later European Monarchs, most notably with Henry II, a century later). Robert collected a band of young men who went to the Castle at Remlard, from where they began to raid Normandy. William quickly drove them from the castle, but they were instead given the Castle at Gerberoi by King Philippe (there was nothing foreign rulers loved more than driving wedges between monarchs and their sons (Philippe Augustus used a very similar method with Henry the Young King a century later)). William laid siege Gerberoi in early 1079, but after three weeks, Robert's forces managed to take William by surprise, in a skirmish where William was reportedly unhorsed by Robert, and only just escaped death. The next year, William and Robert managed to find an agreement, and came to terms where Robert was named as William's heir in Normandy again.


During this time, King Malcom of Scotland led a month-long raid into Northern England, devastating land between the Tweed and the Trent. Lack of Norman response caused another rebellion in the North in 1080, at which point William did respond, sending his half-brother, Odo, to put it down. In July William returned to England, and Robert led a campaign that Autumn against the Scots. Robert got King Malcom to agree to terms and William stayed in England into the next year when he expanded Norman influence in Wales during a power shift between the native princes. By the end of that year he was back on the Continent to deal with more uprisings in Maine.


In 1082, William had some minor issues with his brother Odo, who was arrested. The reasons are a little unclear, although some chroniclers recorded that Odo had set his sights upon becoming Pope, and was planning to invade Southern Italy with some of William's vassals which clearly could not be allowed to happen. 1083 was dominated with personal issues when Robert decided that it would be a good time to rebel again, and William's wife Matilda died (not much has been said on her this week, but she will be the focus of next week's post). In 1084 there was another rebellion (although not as dangerous as previous) and in 1085 there was threat of Danish invasion (King Cnut IV, (brother of Sweyn who had died) had run out of revolts to back!). The invasion risk disappeared however when Cnut died in 1086.


At Christmas 1085, William ordered the completion of the Doomsday Book which was a survey of all the wealth and landholdings in England at the time to the south of the Rivers Tees and Ribble. This was finished in August 1086, and was probably made so that William could justify increasing taxation. In the end of 1086, William left England for the last time. Once back on the continent, he married his daughter Constance to Duke Alun of Brittany, and went on an expedition into the French Vexin as a result of trouble stirred up by Robert and Philippe. William died on 9th September, probably from a fall from his horse, while seizing Mantes aged about sixty. He was buried in Abbaye-aux-Hommes which he had founded and had requested to be buried in. His son Robert was left Normandy, and William, his second son, was left England. War between them quickly followed, with control contested until 1106 when Henry, who had become King of England on William's death in 1100 captured Robert.


The conquest had brought vast changes to England in many areas. William was an astute ruler, and had not tried to rule England and Normandy with only one set of Laws, but had adapted to rule his conquered lands in England and Maine individually. His reign had seen changes language, literature, religion and culture in England, but also brutality with over eighty new castles constructed around England as a constant reminder of the new feudal system and it's new Norman ruler who would be known forever as William the Conqueror.