William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England was a no-nonsense type of man. He lived for fifty-four years and ruled for twenty-one. William’s birthday wasn’t exactly recorded: he was born either in late 1027 or early 1028. William’s birthplace was at the Chateau de Falaise in Falaise, Normandy and he died on September 09, 1087, at the Convent of St. Gervais, Rouen, France.
William’s father, Robert I, Duke of Normandy died when his son was seven. William’s mother Herlette was a common woman, not suitable for marriage to a nobleman. Herletta (also known as Herleve in some sources) also had a daughter by Robert, called Adelaide. Herletta did get married to a knight called Herluin. This marriage produced two sons: Odo and Robert. Odo entered the Church and later was made Bishop of Bayeux.
When he was young, William had a difficult life. His mother saved him from death on more than one occasion. William ‘the Bastard’ as he was known went through several guardians. His uncle, Walter even placed the young Duke with local peasants in an attempt to the boy. William learned ‘street sense & survival”, becoming knighted by King Henry of France when he was fifteen. Duke William was tenacious. His barons had been forced to swear allegiance to him by his father, but they conveniently forgot their vows after his father died. In 1047, Duke William had his underlings well in line, defeating the rebel Barons at Caen, with a little assistance from King Henry. This friendship between Henry and William didn’t last; William had to fight off the French King twice in later years.
William married Matilda, the daughter of Baldwin, the Count of Flanders and Adela, from the royal house of France in 1053. Adela was the daughter of King Robert II. Matilda was a petite woman, hardly standing four feet tall, a contrast to her 5’10 husband. They had nine children: Robert “Curthose” the Duke of Normandy (b.1054-1134); Richard Duke of Bernay(b.1055-1181); Adeliza (b.1055-1065); Cecelia (B.b.1056 -1126) Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen; King William II “William Rufus” (b.1056-1100); Agatha (b.1064-1079); Constance (B.1066-1090); Adela (b.1067-1137); and, King Henry I (b.1068 -1135).
William was said to have sweet talked Edward the Confessor in to making him the heir to the English throne. William had learned much during his childhood. He claimed his right to the throne by a Saxon great aunt, Emma – who was the mother of Edward. Supposedly, Edward had promised William the throne. There was a slight problem, though. The Saxons choose their leader by a vote (Witan), and William wasn’t the man. Harald Godwinson was chosen to be King. William was none too pleased, and even appealed to the Pope, who sided with him, but it didn’t help.
William had planned to cross the channel and invade England in January, but weather conditions foiled his plans. King Harald positioned his army along the English coast waiting for the Norman army, eventually releasing his men after William failed to set foot on English soil. William had to sit back and wait it out the weather keeping him and his army in Normandy until late September.
In early September 1066, King Hardrada of Norway and Tostig Godwinson, the brother of Harald, joined forces and marched from the north of England. King Harald gathered his army and quickly beat feet to head off his rebel brother and his friends before they reached the city of York. The two armies met at the mouth of the River Ouse. Both Tostig and King Hardrada were killed during the fighting. After the battle, a tired King Harald received word that Duke William, leading an army, had been able to land his army of cavalry and archers at Pevensey Bay. The Duke scouted the area, choosing Hastings as his base, where he ordered a fort built.
When an exhausted Saxon army met a fresh Norman one, William gave his terms to Harald. He could pick one of three choices to avoid a battle: surrender the kingdom to William, any controversy between the two want-to-be-kings be settled by the Pope, and that Harald & William pick one-on-one combat to decide who gets the crown in full view of their armies. Harold said nay to William’s proposals. The fight started the next day.
The Harald’s army was hopelessly outmatched by William’s. The Duke of Normandy’s men were rested, on fresh horses. Harald’s men had just come from fighting the Norsemen, many were injured and all were worn out.
William used tactics to win the win. He removed his helm when a rumor of his death was brought to his attention. He drew the English infantry back, feinting a withdrawal, where Williams’ cavalry slaughtered them. William used archers in conjunction with his horsemen. At the end of the day, it took a family member to identify Harald’s remains he’d been so badly dismembered. Despite the devastating loss, the Saxons declared Edgar Aetheling king.
William wasn’t done yet. He had to march south. The Duke kicked butt and took names in Kent & Canterbury. When he reached the Thames at the London Bridge, he met some resistance, so William took a long route around. Edgar gave up in Berkhamsted. William finally was crowned in London, December 25, 1066 at Westminster Abbey. Even after getting his crown, the King put down revolts, the last major one in the north was called the “Harry of the North” in Northumbria. William, fed up with the Barons not listening, laid waste to the entire area. The land itself was infertile for one hundred years!
Many of the Saxon lords had been killed during the fighting at Hastings. Men were swore fealty to William were allowed to keep property, but they had sons taken as ‘hostages’ and daughters were married to Normans. William remembered those who came with him from Normandy. He raised knights to Barons, giving them lands & titles which had formerly been held by Saxons. William wasn’t stupid, he knew the best way to unite a country was by blood – marriage – therefore whenever possible he gave daughters of former nobles to his favored men.
William instituted feudalism. Now, the common man was tied to the land, which was bound to a tiered level of lords each vassal to a superior ranking one, with the King as top dog. William wanted to know how many people lived in his new Norman kingdom, and what each man called his own. The King sent out men authorized to take an accounting of the people and lands, the first ruler to commission a census. The results of the grand census was compiled in a record, called The Doomsday Book. The book is actually in two parts, the Little Doomsday and the Great Doomsday. The actual book still exists, but due to its fragile nature, a copy is on display and one can go on-line, or see the document in person to Kew, England at the National Archives.
King William had the White Tower, the foundation of the Tower of London, built. He was the first monarch to live there. He centralized the Shire courts, decreasing the Earl’s involved to one Shire only. He instituted knight’s fees (taxes) paid directly to the Crown. William set aside many lands in his kingdom as hunting preserves. The Conqueror’s deeds were immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry. One can see this incredible piece of history at the Museum of Reading, England or on-line.
King William the Conqueror met a sad end. During a hunt, he suffered an injury falling from his horse. After dying from the abdominal wound, his body lay in State. After the service, his body, swollen from gas, wouldn’t fit inside the allotted sarcophagus. Attending priests trying to force the dead King’s body in to his final resting place unwittingly caused the body to split open. It is reported the smell was unbearable. In later years, poor William’s grave was desecrated twice. When his remains were places in the final resting place at St. Stephen, Caen, Normandy, only a few bones and skin were left. William was succeeded by William Rufus.
Here is the link to the Doomsday Book:
Here is the link to the Bayeux Tapestry: