William I of England

William I of England

Infobox British Royalty|majesty
name =William the Conqueror or William the Basterd
title =King of the English

imgw =229
caption =The Duke of Normandy in the Bayeux Tapestry
reign =25 December 1066 – 9 September 1087
coronation =25 December 1066
predecessor ="England:" Edgar Ætheling (uncrowned), Harold II
"Normandy:" Robert I the Magnificent
successor ="England:" William II Rufus
"Normandy:" Robert II Curthose, Duke of Normandy
spouse =Matilda of Flanders
issue =Robert II, Duke of Normandy
Richard, Duke of Bernay
William II of England
Adela, Countess of Blois
Henry I of England
issue-link = #Descendants
issue-pipe = among others
titles =King of the English
Duke of the Normans
father =Robert the Magnificent
mother =Herlette of Falaise
date of birth =1027
place of birth =Falaise, France
date of death =death date|1087|9|9|df=y (aged c.59)
place of death =Convent of St. Gervais, Rouen
place of burial =Saint-Étienne de Caen, France|

William I of England (1027 –September 9 1087), better known as William the Conqueror ( _fr. Guillaume le Conquérant), was Duke of Normandy from 1035 and King of England from 1066 to his death.

To claim the English crown, William invaded England in 1066, leading an army of Normans to victory over the Anglo-Saxon forces of Harold Godwinson (who died in the conflict) at the Battle of Hastings, and suppressed subsequent English revolts in what has become known as the Norman Conquest.cite web|url=http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/normans/1066_01.shtml|title=1066|date=2001-05-01|accessdate=2007-07-16|format=HTML|work=BBC|author=Dr. Mike Ibeji]

His reign, which brought Norman culture to England, had an enormous impact on the subsequent course of England in the Middle Ages. In addition to political changes, his reign also saw changes to English law, a programme of building and fortification, changes to the vocabulary of the English language, and the introduction of continental European feudalism into England.

As Duke of Normandy, he is known as "William II." He was also, particularly before the conquest, known as William the Bastard. ["We must see how one who started with all the disadvantages which are implied in his earlier surname of the Bastard came to win and to deserve his later surnames of the Conqueror and the Great." Edward Augustus Freeman, "William the Conqueror" (1888), Chapter 1 (p. 7 of the 2004 reprint by [http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/freeman/William.pdf Batoche Books] .]

Early life

William the bastard was born in Falaise, Normandy, the illegitimate and only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, who named him as heir to Normandy. His mother, Herleva (among other names), who later had two sons to another father, was the daughter of Fulbert, most probably a local tanner. William had a sister, Adelaide of Normandy, another child of Robert and Herleva. Later in life the enemies of William are said to have commented derisively that William stank like a tannery, and the residents of besieged Alençon hung skins from the city walls to taunt him.

William is believed to have been born in either 1027 or 1028, and more likely in the autumn of the latter year.The official web site of the [http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page18.asp British Monarchy] puts his birth at "around 1028", which may reasonably be taken as definitive. The frequently encountered date of 14 October 1024 is likely to be spurious. It was promulgated by Thomas Roscoe in his 1846 biography "The life of William the Conqueror". The year 1024 is apparently calculated from the fictive deathbed confession of William recounted by Ordericus Vitalis (who was about twelve when the Conqueror died); in it William allegedly claimed to be about sixty-three or four years of age at his death bed in 1087. The birth day and month are suspiciously the same as those of the Battle of Hastings. This date claim, repeated by other Victorian historians (e.g. Jacob Abbott), has been entered unsourced into the [http://www.familysearch.com LDS genealogical database] , and has found its way thence into countless personal genealogies. Cf. [http://www.bosham.org/bosham-william-conqueror.htm "The Conqueror and His Companions" by J.R. Planché, Somerset Herald. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1874] .] He was born the grandnephew of Queen Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred the Unready and later of King Canute the Great. [Powell, John, "Magill's Guide to Military History", Salem Press, Inc., 2001, p. 226. ISBN 0893560197.]

Duke of Normandy

By his father's will, William succeeded him as Duke of Normandy at age eight in 1035 and was known as Duke William of Normandy ( _fr. Guillaume, duc de Normandie; _la. Guglielmus Dux Normanniae). Plots by rival Norman noblemen to usurp his place cost William three guardians, though not Count Alan III of Brittany, who was a later guardian. William was supported by King Henry I of France, however. He was knighted by Henry at age 15. By the time William turned 19 he was successfully dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. With the assistance of Henry, William finally secured control of Normandy by defeating rebel Norman barons at Caen in the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047, obtaining the Truce of God, which was backed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Against the wishes of Pope Leo IX, William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Eu, Normandy (Seine-Maritime). At the time, William was about 24 years old and Matilda was 22. William is said to have been a faithful and loving husband, and their marriage produced four sons and six daughters. In repentance for what was a consanguine marriage (they were distant cousins), William donated St-Stephen's church (l'Abbaye-aux-Hommes) and Matilda donated Sainte-Trinité church (Abbaye aux Dames).

Feeling threatened by the increase in Norman power resulting from William's noble marriage, Henry I attempted to invade Normandy twice (1054 and 1057), without success. Already a charismatic leader, William attracted strong support within Normandy, including the loyalty of his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, who played significant roles in his life. Later, he benefitted from the weakening of two competing power centers as a result of the deaths of Henry I and of Geoffrey II of Anjou, in 1060. In 1062 William invaded and took control of the county of Maine, which had been a fief of Anjou. [David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284 (2003).]

English succession

Upon the death of the childless Edward the Confessor, the English throne was fiercely disputed by three claimants -- William, Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and the Viking King Harald III of Norway, known as Harald Hadråda. William had a tenuous blood claim, through his great aunt Emma (wife of Ethelred and mother of Edward). William also contended that Edward, who had spent much of his life in exile in Normandy during the Danish occupation of England, had promised William the throne when William visited Edward in London in 1052. Finally, William claimed that Harold had pledged allegiance to him in 1064. William had rescued the shipwrecked Harold from the count of Ponthieu, and together they had defeated Conan II, Count of Brittany. On that occasion, William knighted Harold, and deceived him by having him swear loyalty to William over the concealed bones of a saint.cite book |last= Clark|first= George|authorlink= George Clark (historian)|title= English History: A Survey|origyear= 1971|year= 1978|publisher= Oxford University Press/Book Club Associates|isbn= 0198223390|chapter= The Norman Conquest]

In January 1066, however, in accordance with Edward's last will and by vote of the Witenagemot, Harold Godwinson was crowned King by Archbishop Aldred.

Norman Invasion

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. Offering promises of English lands and titles, he amassed at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme a considerable invasion force of 600 ships and 7,000 men, consisting of Normans, Bretons, French mercenaries, and numerous foreign knights. In England, Harold assembled a large army on the south coast and a fleet of ships to guard the English Channel.

Fortuitously for William, his crossing was delayed by weeks of unfavourable winds. William managed to keep his army together during the wait, but Harold's was diminished by dwindling supplies and falling morale with the arrival of the harvest season. [Carpenter, p. 72.] Harold also consolidated his ships in London, leaving the English Channel unguarded. Then came the news that the other contender for the throne, Harald III of Norway, allied with Tostig Godwinson, had landed ten miles from York; Harold was forced to march against them.

Before he could return south, the wind direction turned and William crossed, landing his army at Pevensey Bay (Sussex) on 28 September. Thence he moved to Hastings, a few miles to the east, where he built a prefabricated wooden castle for a base of operations. From there, he ravaged the hinterland and waited for Harold's return from the north. [Carpenter, p. 72.]

William chose Hastings as it was at the end of long penninsula flanked by impassable marshes. Battle was on the isthmus. William at once built a fort at Hastings to guard his rear against potential arrival of Harold's fleet from London. Having landed his army, William was less concerned about desertion and could have waited out the winter storms, raided the surrounding area for horses and started a campagn in the spring. Harold had been reconnoitering the south of England for some time and well appreciated the need to occupy this isthmus at once. [N.A.M. Rodger "The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, Vol 1: 660-1649" pp 32-35.]

Battle of Hastings

Harold, after defeating his brother Tostig Godwinson and Harald Hardraada in the north, marched his army 241 miles to meet the invading William in the south. On 13 October, William received news of Harold's march from London. At dawn the next day, William left the castle with his army and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position atop the Senlac Hill/Senlac ridge, about seven miles from Hastings, at present-day Battle, East Sussex.

The Battle of Hastings lasted all day. Although the numbers on each side were about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few if any archers. [Carpenter, p. 73.] Along the ridge's border, formed as a wall of shields, the English soldiers at first stood so effectively that William's army was thrown back with heavy casualties. William rallied his troops, however -- reportedly raising his helmet, as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, to quell rumors of his death. Meanwhile, many of the English had pursued the fleeing Normans on foot, allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly from the rear as his infantry pretended to retreat further. ["Ibid".] Norman arrows also took their toll, progressively weakening the English wall of shields. A final Norman cavalry attack decided the battle irrevocably, resulting in the deaths of Harold, killed by an arrow in the eye, and two of his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine Godwinson. At dusk, the English army made their last stand. By that night, the Norman victory was complete and the remaining English soldiers fled in fear.

March to London

For two weeks, William waited for a formal surrender of the English throne, but the Witenagemot proclaimed the quite young Edgar Ætheling instead, though without coronation. Thus, William's next target was London, approaching 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 lead 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 acclaimed then as English King, he requested a coronation in London. As William I, he was formally crowned on Christmas day 1066, in Westminster Abbey, by Archbishop Aldred.

English resistance

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, Exeter) and Wales. Also, in 1068, Harold's illegitimate sons attempted an invasion of the south western peninsula, but William defeated them.

For William I, the worst crisis came from Northumbria, which had still not submitted to his realm. In 1068, with Edgar Ætheling, both Mercia and Northumbria revolted. William could suppress these, but Edgar fled to Scotland where Malcolm III of Scotland protected him. Furthermore, Malcolm married Edgar's sister Margaret, with much éclat, stressing the English balance of power against William. Under such circumstances, Northumbria rebelled, besieging York. Then, Edgar resorted also to the Danes, who 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 and its castle. 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 swore to depart.

William then devastated Northumbria between the Humber and Tees rivers, with his Harrying of the North. This devastation included setting fire to the vegetation, houses and even tools to work the fields. He also burnt crops, killed livestock and sowed the fields and land with salt, to stunt growth. After this cruel treatment the land did not recover for more than 100 years. The region ended up absolutely deprived, losing its traditional autonomy towards England. However it may have stopped future rebellions, scaring the English people into obedience. Then, the Danish king disembarked in person, readying his army to restart the war, but William suppressed this threat with a payment of gold. In 1071, William defeated the last rebellion of the north through an improvised pontoon, subduing the Isle of Ely, where the Danes had gathered. In 1072, he invaded Scotland, defeating Malcolm and gaining a temporary peace. In 1074, Edgar Ætheling submitted definitively to William.

In 1075, during William's absence, the Revolt of the Earls was confronted successfully by Odo. In 1080, William dispatched his half brothers Odo and Robert to storm Northumbria and Scotland, respectively. Eventually, the Pope protested that the Normans were mistreating the English people. Before quelling the rebellions, William had conciliated with the English church; however, he persecuted it ferociously afterwards.

Reign in England


As would be habit for his descendants, William spent much of his time (11 years, since 1072) in Normandy, ruling the islands through his writs. Nominally still a vassal state, owing its entire loyalty to the French king, Normandy arose suddenly as a powerful region, alarming the other French Dukes who reacted by attacking the duchy persistently. As Duke of Normandy, William was obsessed with conquering Brittany, and the French King Philip I admonished him. A treaty was concluded after his aborted invasion of Brittany in 1076, and William betrothed Constance to the Breton Duke Hoel's son, the future Alan IV of Brittany. The wedding occurred only in 1086, after Alan's accession to the throne, and Constance died childless a few years later.

The mischief of William's elder son Robert arose after a prank of his brothers William and Henry, who doused him with filthy water. The situation became a large scale Norman rebellion. Only with King Philip's additional military support was William able to confront Robert, who was based at Flanders. During the battle in 1079, William was unhorsed and wounded by Robert, who lowered his sword only after recognizing him. The embarrassed William returned to Rouen, abandoning the expedition. In 1080, Matilda reconciled both, and William revoked Robert's inheritance.

Odo caused many troubles to William, and he was imprisoned in 1082, losing his English estate and all royal functions, except the religious ones. In 1083, Matilda died, and William became more tyrannical over his realm.


William initiated many major changes. He increased the function of the traditional English shires (autonomous administrative regions), which he brought under central control; he decreased the power of the earls by restricting them to one shire apiece. All administrative functions of his government remained fixed at specific English towns, except the court itself; they would progressively strengthen, and the English institutions became amongst the most sophisticated in Europe. In 1085, in order to ascertain the extent of his new dominions and to improve taxation, William commissioned all his counselors for the compilation of the Domesday Book, which was published in 1086. The book was a survey of England's productive capacity similar to a modern census.

William also ordered many castles, keeps, and mottes, among them the Tower of London's foundation (the White Tower), which were built throughout England. These ensured effectively that the many rebellions by the English people or his own followers did not succeed.

His conquest also led to French (especially, but not only, the Norman French) replacing English as the language of the ruling classes for nearly 300 years. [While English emerged as a popular vernacular and literary language within one hundred years of the Conquest, it was only in 1362 that King Edward III abolished the use of French in Parliament] [Alexander Herman Schutz and Urban Tigner Holmes, "A History of the French Language", Biblo and Tannen Publishers, 1938. pp. 44-45. ISBN 0819601918.] Furthermore, the original Anglo-Saxon culture of England became mingled with the Norman one; thus the Anglo-Norman culture came into being.

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 the Norman noblemen. Many English aristocrats fled to Flanders and Scotland; others may have been sold into slavery overseas. Some escaped to join the Byzantine Empire's Varangian Guard, and went on to fight the Normans in Sicily. By 1070, the indigenous nobility had ceased to be an integral part of the English landscape, and by 1086, it maintained control of just 8% of its original land-holdings. [Douglas, David Charles. "English Historical Documents", Routledge, 1996, p. 22. ISBN 0415143675.] However, to the new Norman noblemen, William handed the English parcels of land piecemeal, dispersing these wide. Thus nobody would try conspiring against him without jeopardizing their own estates within the so unstable England. Effectively, this strengthened William's political stand as a monarch.

William also seized and depopulated many miles of land (36 parishes), turning it into the royal New Forest region to support his enthusiastic enjoyment of hunting. [Based on William of Malmesbury's "Historia Anglorum". "He was of just stature, ordinary corpulence, fierce countenance; his forehead was bare of hair; of such great strength of arm that it was often a matter of surprise, that no one was able to draw his bow, which himself could bend when his horse was in full gallop; he was majestic whether sitting or standing, although the protuberance of his belly deformed his royal person; of excellent health so that he was never confined with any dangerous disorder, except at the last; so given to the pleasures of the chase, that as I have before said, ejecting the inhabitants, he let a space of many miles grow desolate that, when at liberty from other avocations, he might there pursue his pleasures." See [http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/normans.htm English Monarch: The House of Normandy] .]

Death, burial, and succession

In 1087 in France, William burned Mantes (50 km west of Paris), besieging the town. However, he fell off his horse, suffering fatal abdominal injuries by the saddle pommel. On his deathbed, William divided his succession for his sons, sparking strife between them. Despite William's reluctance, his combative elder son Robert received the Duchy of Normandy, as Robert II. William Rufus (his third son) was next English king, as William II. William's youngest son Henry received 5,000 silver pounds, which would be earmarked to buy land. He also became King Henry I of England after William II died without issue. While on his deathbed, William pardoned many of his political adversaries, including Odo.

William died at age 59 at the Convent of St Gervais in Rouen, capital city of Normandie, France, on 9 September 1087. William was buried in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, which he had erected, in Caen, Normandy.

According to some sources, a fire broke out during the funeral; the original owner of the land on which the church was built claimed he had not been paid yet, demanding 60 shillings, which William's son Henry had to pay on the spot; and, in a most unregal postmortem, William's corpulent body would not fit in the stone sarcophagus.

William's grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a Latin inscription; the slab dates from the early 19th century. The grave was defiled twice, once during the French Wars of Religion, when his bones were scattered across the town of Caen, and again during the French Revolution. Following those events, only William's left femur remains in the tomb and some skin particles


William's invasion was the last time that England was successfully conquered by a foreign power. Although there would be a number of other attempts over the centuries, the best that could be achieved would be excursions by foreign troops, such as the Raid on the Medway during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, but no actual conquests such as William's. There have however been occasions since that time when foreign rulers have succeeded to the English/British throne, notably the Dutch Stadtholder William III of Orange in 1688 after a successful invasion of England by Dutch troops (see Glorious Revolution) and George of Hanover b. 1660, who acceded by virtue of the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the succession.

As Duke of Normandy and King of England he passed the titles on to his descendants. Other territories would be acquired by marriage or conquest and, at their height, these possessions would be known as the Angevin Empire.

They included many lands in France, such as Normandy and Aquitaine, but the question of jurisdiction over these territories would be the cause of much conflict and bitter rivalry between England and France, which took up much of the Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years War and, some might argue, continued as far as the Battle of Waterloo of 1815.

Physical appearance

No authentic portrait of William has been found. Nonetheless, he was depicted as a man of fair stature with remarkably strong arms, "with which he could shoot a bow at full gallop". William showed a magnificent appearance, possessing a fierce countenance. He enjoyed an excellent health; nevertheless his noticeable corpulence augmented eventually so much that French King Philip I commented that William looked like a pregnant woman. [ [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/MEDwilliam1.htm Spartacus Schoolnet] , retrieved 17 July 2007.]



William is known to have had nine children, though Agatha, a tenth daughter who died a virgin, appears in some sources. Several other unnamed daughters are also mentioned as being betrothed to notable figures of that time. Despite rumours to the contrary (such as claims that William Peverel was a bastard of William) [ [http://patp.us/genealogy/conq/peverel.aspx The Conqueror and His Companions (J.R Planche 1874)] ] there is no evidence that he had any illegitimate children, [ [http://sbaldw.home.mindspring.com/hproject/prov/willi001.htm William "the Conqueror" (Guillaume "le Conquérant")] .]

# Robert Curthose (1054–1134), Duke of Normandy, married Sybil of Conversano, daughter of Geoffrey of Conversano.
# Richard (c. 1055 – c. 1081), Duke of Bernay, killed by a stag in New Forest.
# Adeliza (or Alice) (c. 1055 – c. 1065), reportedly betrothed to Harold II of England.
# Cecilia (or Cecily) (c. 1056 – 1126), Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen.
# William "Rufus" (c. 1056 – 1100), King of England.
# Agatha (c. 1064 – 1079), betrothed to Alfonso VI of Castile.
# Constance (c. 1066 – 1090), married Alan IV Fergent, Duke of Brittany; poisoned, possibly by her own servants.
# Adela (c. 1067 – 1137), married Stephen, Count of Blois.
# Henry "Beauclerc" (1068–1135), King of England, married Edith of Scotland, daughter of Malcolm III, King of the Scots. His second wife was Adeliza of Leuven.

Fictional depictions

William I has appeared as a character in only a few stage and screen productions. The one-act play "A Choice of Kings" by John Mortimer deals with his deception of Harold after the latter's shipwreck. Julian Glover portrayed him in a 1966 TV adaptation of this play in the ITV Play of the Week series.

William has also been portrayed on screen by Thayer Roberts in the film "Lady Godiva of Coventry" (1955), John Carson in the BBC TV series "Hereward the Wake" (1965), Alan Dobie in the two-part BBC TV play "Conquest" (1966; part of the series "Theatre 625"), and Michael Gambon in the TV drama "Blood Royal: William the Conqueror" (1990).

On a less serious note, he has been portrayed by David Lodge in an episode of the TV comedy series "Carry On Laughing" entitled "One in the Eye for Harold" (1975), James Fleet in the humorous BBC show "The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything" (1999), and Gavin Abbott in an episode of the British educational TV series "Historyonics" entitled "1066" (2004).


Further reading

*Bates, David (1989) "William the Conqueror", London : George Philip, 198 p. ISBN 978-0-7524-1980-0
*Douglas, David C. (1999) "William the Conqueror; the Norman impact upon England", Yale English monarchs series, London : Yale University Press, 476 p., ISBN 0-300-07884-6
*Howarth, David (1977) "1066 The Year of the Conquest", London : Collins, 207 p., ISBN 0-00-211845-9
*Prescott, Hilda F.M. (1932) "Son of Dust", reprinted 1978: London : White Lion, 288 p. ISBN 0-85617-239-1
*Savage, Anne (transl. & coll.) (2002) "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles", London : Greenwich Editions, 288 p., ISBN 0-86288-440-3

External links

*Genealogics name|id=00000002|name=
* [http://www.ibattles.co.uk audio drama documentary about the events of 1066 focusing on the North of England]
* [http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/1066 William the Conqueror, by E. A. Freeman at Project Gutenberg]
* [http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/normans.htm Illustrated biography of William the Conqueror]
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=1948 William I of England] at Find a Grave
* [http://www.historyhouse.com/in_history/william/ History House: William the Conqueror]
*Jacob Abbott, [http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=abbott&book=william&story=_contents William the Conqueror] Baldwin Project reprint, written originally in 1849 for younger readers, but contains useful information about the life of William I and the Norman Conquest.

F=Robert II
Duke of Normandy

FF=Richard II of Normandy
FM=Judith of Brittany
M=Herleva of Falaise
MF=Fulbert of Falaise

NAME=England, William I of
DATE OF BIRTH=1024–1028
PLACE OF BIRTH= Falaise, France
DATE OF DEATH=9 September 1087
PLACE OF DEATH= Convent of St. Gervais, Rouen

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