By Peter Konieczny
A quick guide to William I (c.1028-1087), Duke of Normandy and King of England, one of the most famous rulers of the medieval era.
He became Duke of Normandy as a child
According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, Robert I, Duke of Normandy (1027-35) met a lady named Herleva: “Her beauty had once caught his eye as she was dancing, and he could not refrain from sleeping with her; and henceforth he loved her above all others, and for some time kept her in the position of a lawful wife.”
The product of this union was a son named William, and there was some dispute about whether or not he was of legitimate or illegitimate birth – outside of Normandy he was called William the Bastard. In 1035 Robert died while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, since William was his only son, he became the next Duke of Normandy.
He was only seven or eight years old at this time, so his control over this territory was very weak. William of Malmesbury called this period a “time of fire and sword everywhere” as neighbouring rulers and rebellious Norman nobles tried to gain land and power at the Duke’s expense.
Eventually, William would gain the support of King Henry I of France and at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047 they defeated many of the Duke’s enemies. William would continue to face revolts over the next several years, but he was able to consolidate power over his duchy.
Matilda, the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, at first rejected William’s courtship because she would not marry a bastard. According to a 13th-century chronicle, the young Duke responded by riding to Baldwin’s palace in Bruges, where he forced his way in, and then “with his fists, heels, and spurs” beat Matilda. Shockingly, his action made Matilda reverse her decision, saying she would marry no other man but William.
Although they were married in the early 1050s, it took several years (and the promise that each of them would build a monastery) before the Papacy officially sanctioned the union. As Duchess of Normandy, and later Queen of England, Matilda often ruled one part of the Norman Empire while her husband was based in the other.
In a recent biography, Tracy Borman explains:
she had carved out a position of power and influence in the male-dominated political arena of both countries, and in so doing had confounded the conventional stereotypes of women. Far from being a meek and submissive wife and consort, subject entirely to her husband’s will, she had wielded authority in her own right and had enjoyed an independence of action matched by few of her contemporaries.
As William consolidated his rule over Normandy, he made use of a trusted inner circle of supporters, chief among them his two half-brothers (on his mother’s side) Odo and Robert. Odo would gain an important ecclesiastical appointment – Bishop of Bayeux – while Robert would become the Count of Mortain. In later years, his sons such as Robert Curthose and William would also become important players in the Norman administration.
His claim to the English throne
The King of England since 1042 was Edward the Confessor. Being a highly religious man, Edward decided to be celibate and never had any children. This led to much speculation over who would be the next ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It seems that at one point Edward favoured having Duke William, his first cousin once removed, succeed him, but on his deathbed in 1066 he named Harold Godwinsson to be the new king. William and his supporters refused to accept this, adding that Harold had already promised to support the Duke’s claim to the throne.
His victory at the Battle of Hastings
In the fall of 1066, Duke William invaded England in order to fight for the English throne. His Norman army met the English forces at Hastings on October 14th, which ended with the death of King Harold Godwinsson and much of the Anglo-Saxon nobility. The Battle of Hastings was one of the most important battles of the Middle Ages, changing the course of English history. On December 25, 1066, William was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey.
Taking control of England
Despite his victory at Hastings, King William still faced much resistance to his rule from the local population. While in London. William was able to levy fines on his new subjects and gradually get their support, the situation in northern England was much more difficult. William launched a particularly devastating military campaign during the winter of 1069-70 – known as the ‘Harrying of the North’, the Normans laid waste to the northern parts of his kingdom. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis describes the scene:
The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change.To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.
The Norman Conquest would bring many changes to England, including replacing much of the Anglo-Saxon elite with William’s fellow Normans. Even the language would change, as Old English was replaced by Anglo-Norman French for governmental business. Stronger fortifications, such as the White Tower in London, were also built throughout England – castles from which the Normans could rule over their countryside.
In the year 1085, King William was holding a meeting with his officials and the bishops. According to the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘the king had great thought, and very deep conversation with his council about this land; how it was occupied, or with which men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out “How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what livestock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.”
William’s order for his officials was to record:
What or how much, each man had, who was an occupier of land in England, either in land or in livestock, and how much money it were worth.
This would become the Domesday Book, a great survey carried out by the officials of the Norman king, which allowed him to understand which land and resources he owned, and what was owed to him by other landowners and people. Two volumes were produced, providing over 832 folios of information that is astonishingly comprehensive for its time.
His final years
William would continue to face many challenges to his rule over England and Normandy, including from his own son Robert Curthose. As he became older, and especially after the death of his wife Matilda, William became less able to maintain control over his empire.
His troubles continued when he learned that his half-brother Odo was secretly trying to purchase the Papacy for himself – William was so upset that he personally arrested Odo and kept him in prison for the rest of his reign.
William was besieging the city of Mantes in the summer of 1087 when he fell from his horse. He was taken to Rouen where his health declined and on September 9th he died. Orderic Vitalis relates what happened next:
The physicians and the others present, who had watched the king as he slept all night without a sigh or groan, and now realized that he had died without warning, were utterly dumbfounded and almost out of their minds.
But the wealthier among them quickly mounted horse and rode off as fast as they could to protect their properties. The lesser attendants, seeing that their superiors had absconded, seized the arms, vessels, clothing, linen, and all the royal furnishings, and hurried away leaving the king’s body almost naked on the floor.
Among the many books about King William I are two recent biographies: William: King and Conqueror by Mark Hagger and another about his wife – Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I, by Tracy Borman. You can also read these posts on Medievalists.net: