From William the Bastard to William the Conqueror
Indissociable from both French and English History, William the Conqueror was a king who unquestionably left his mark on past centuries.
Of Norman origin, he is the only king to have conquered England, consequently inspiring many military geniuses and strategists in his wake.
Often copied, yet never rivalled, William the Conqueror, hitherto referred to as William the Bastard, is considered as the first genuine King of England.
William the Conqueror’s youth in Normandy
William was born in Falaise around the year 1027. He was the son of Robert the Magnificent and Arlette of Falaise. William was later nicknamed the « Bastard », for his mother was but one of Robert’s concubines.
Indeed, in this early first millennium , Normandy was still governed according to Viking laws, which authorised a man to have several spouses. Referred to as « Frillas » or wives « More Danico », or even « danesche manere », which, in Old Norse, means « in the Danish manner « . They were acknowledged by the Normans as totally legitimate wives; however, the Christian Church did not recognise them, consequently referring to any offspring born from this form of wedlock as bastards.
However, Robert considered William to be his rightful son and consequently designated him as his successor after his death. Robert died in 1035.
The death of Robert the Magnificent
William was only eight at the time and we know very little of the life he lived before his father’s death. He suddenly found himself at the heart of plots devised by pretenders to the ducal power, keen to eliminate him, despite the oath of allegiance they had taken during his father’s lifetime. Christians and non-Christians alike consequently attributed him the nickname of William the Bastard as a legitimate enough reason not to entrust him with the throne.
The Battle of Val ès Dunes , near Caen
Up to the age of 19 years, William successfully eluded a number of assassination attempts. The young duke then decided to overpower the rebellious barons with help from the King Henry I of France.
His victory at the Battle of Val ès Dunes in 1047 was to mark a turning point in young William’s life, very probably offering him the courage he needed to prepare his future conquests.
A marriage disapproved
In 1049, a wedding was arranged between the young duke and Matilda of Flanders, who was the daughter of the Count of Flanders and the niece of Henry I of France.
However, their union was tarnished by complications, for the Pope, Leo IX, forbade their marriage due to an excessive degree of consanguinity.
The Church finally approved the marriage in 1053, in exchange for the promise to build four hospitals and two monasteries .
Thanks to his marriage, the Duke truly established his power: Northern France and present-day Belgium were henceforth allies.
During the same period, William travelled to England to ask for help from his friend Edward the Confessor, the King of England.
The Men’s Abbey and the Ladies’ Abbey in Caen
William and Matilda’s promise was kept 6 years later, in 1059, when construction of the Men’s Abbey, dedicated to St. Stephen, and the Ladies’ Abbey, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, began.
Yet, these times of peace were short-lived. Pretenders to the Duchy of Normandy took up arms once more to depose William, whilst Henry I of France moved to a different political stance by supporting them. For indeed, William’s marriage with Matilda had afforded him a far too vast territory, which was a threat to the King of France.
William nevertheless devised a strategic plan aimed at taking the King of France’s army and their allies from the rear. Believing they had successfully conquered the Duchy, the king’s men had no choice but to cross the River Orne, laden with their spoils. William took advantage of this weakness to attack them from the rear, drowning the vast majority of the army under the king’s powerless gaze.
Following the king’s defeat at the Battle of Varaville, he decided to cease harassing William and to leave him alone in his Duchy of Normandy.
At this point in time, William began to reinforce his power, by appointing close friends in whom he trusted to key positions in strategic sites across Normandy.
In 1060, he began the construction of Caen Castle, a location which enabled him to better control the Cotentin peninsula. For he still had little confidence in his viscounts and could not truly assert his power over them from his castle in Falaise.
©Arnaud Guérin – Lithosphère
Edward the Confessor, a Normanophile
Edward the Confessor died on the 5th of January 1066. With no heir to follow him, he left the throne of England empty. He nevertheless appears to have promised his lands to several pretenders, including William of Normandy during his visit in 1051.
For Edward the Confessor was indeed quite a Normanophile. He was the son of Emma of Normandy and, when his father was deposed of the English throne by Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Norway, he sought refuge in Normandy, where he stayed for thirty years. When he returned to power in 1042, he chose to surround himself with Normans, the only allies in which he had real trust. This was not to the liking of the Saxons.
But Edward was a weakened sovereign who, immediately prior to his death, promised his throne to several contenders in order to avoid conflict. His promises spurred these pretenders to take up arms upon his death, each one believing he was the only legitimate successor to the throne.
Hence, when William was informed that the Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinson had come to the throne, he convinced the Norman barons to set off with him to conquer England. Little by little, he was joined by the Counts of Flanders, Le Mans, Boulogne and Brittany.
©Tapisserie de Bayeux
The Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror
William chose Picardy as his departure point for his expedition to England. Bad weather thwarted his plans. However, it proved to be a godsend for, in the meantime, the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada also attacked England, hence weakening the English troops. Yet, in York on the 20th of September 1066, Harold of England won the battle against the Norwegians, hence bringing the Viking era in England to an end.
Eight days later, on the 28th of September 1066, William reached Hastings, in Sussex. William had deliberately chosen this site, for it was part of Harold Godwinson’s private estate. The Normans rapidly built a wood and earthen castle. In the meantime, Harold’s army was forced to walk the 225 miles that separate York from Hastings. An exhausting trip that weakened his soldiers, hence affording the Normans a certain advantage.
The Battle of Hastings – 14th October 1066
Prior to the Battle of Hastings, which took place on the 14th of October 1066, the English had decided to name their own king, rather than to submit to William’s claim to the throne. The battle lasted the entire day and William came out victorious .
The battle was fierce and many were lost. Four years later, in 1070, William the Conqueror founded Battle Abbey, as a monument in memory of those lost in combat.
William then decided to submit the English provinces, one after another, starting with Kent and Hampshire, where the crown jewels were stored. In just a few months, he burned down all the territories he conquered and, in December 1066, he reached London. He took the English crown on the 25th of December 1066 in Westminster Abbey and launched the construction of a new castle, today known as the Tower of London.
©Tapisserie de Bayeux
William the Conqueror in England
He remained in England in order to repress revolts by the English who rejected his authority. To do so, he ordered for the construction of several fortified castles across the land, including Warwick Castle and Nottingham Castle.
The Normans also built castral mounds aimed at offering safe shelter for their garrison. A few vestiges of these constructions can still be seen today in the north of England.
William travelled to Normandy in March 1067, to return to England in December the same year.
Then, a few months later, in May 1068, Matilda was crowned Queen of England.
To truly establish his authority, William continued to burn villages, massacre herds of livestock and to starve the population. A succession of rebellions reigned across the country until 1070.
The political climate on the opposite side of the English Channel was no calmer. The French King Philip I, the Count of Anjou and the Count of Flanders rallied against William in a hope to seize Normandy.
The quarrel between the King of the Franks, Philip I, and the King of England, William the Conqueror, was to mark the very first war between France and England. Their opposition survived both kings, amplifying over the centuries to remain, to this day, a subject of dispute.
Queen Matilda died on the 2nd of November 1083. She had actively defended and governed Normandy during William’s absence in England. And it appears that they formed a solid and faithful couple. No mistresses have been attributed to William the Conqueror, no illegitimate child and no infidelity, which was particularly rare at the time.
The Queen had expressed her desire to be buried in the Ladies’ Abbey in Caen. A wish that was respected.
©Arnaud Guérin – Lithosphère
The Domesday Book
William commissioned the drafting of the Domesday Book at Christmas 1085. It was the first ever census to be compiled in England. The book is an inventory of the land, livestock and resources belonging to their respective owners at the time.
William had conquered England, but was as yet unaware of the true wealth of each region. The book subsequently enabled him to calculate the appropriate taxes to be levied.
Today, the Domesday Book remains a very famous work in England for it is registered among the National Archives.
The Domesday Book is far less familiar in France, although sometimes referred to as the Livre du Jugement Dernier (Book of the Last Judgment).
William the Conqueror’s death
William led another battle in 1087, during which he burned the town of Mantes. He had become obese, which was a considerable handicap. Wounded during the battle, he was taken to Rouen. He died on the 9th of September 1087. His son, Robert, took the Duchy of Normandy, whilst his younger brother, William Rufus, acceded to the English throne.
William was buried in the Men’s Abbey. Prior to his death, he requested that all prisoners be released, provided they refrain from disturbing public order.
©Arnaud Guérin – Lithosphère