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William I, The Conqueror

The Norman position at the Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror's life was one of constant struggle in a turbulent world. Although he rose from humble beginnings to rule Normandy and England, his authority was never safe. Apart from his beloved wife Matilda, he could trust virtually no one, not even his own sons. No one man had authority which was accepted by all others, so William did what many rulers had done before him: he appealed to a higher authority. William worked hard to give the impression that it was his God-given destiny to rule Normandy and England.

The Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life points out that it is never possible to tell in advance which animals will be successful in the struggle for life. We all think that animals survive by being better adapted, but we cannot tell beforehand which adaptations will be the useful ones. Only in hindsight can we do that. When he was born no one would have put any money on William becoming "the Conqueror". William was born at Falaise, Normandy, in 1027 or 1028. He was the illegitimate son of Robert, sixth Duke of what was then the independent province of Normandy. His mother was a girl from Falaise, named Herleve, probably the daughter of a tanner. Shortly after William's birth, Herleve was married off to Herlius, Vicomte of Conteville.




The White Tower at the Tower Of London. There was nothing to indicate William would one day build castles like this

Little is known of William's childhood. At the time there was no reason to take any note of this little boy. In fact he was probably an embarrassment and might have been hidden away in Falaise. Later of course when William had become one of Europe's most powerful rulers, legends developed to illustrate the child's special qualities. William of Malmesbury told a story that Herleve had a dream on the night of William's conception that a tree grew out of her body, with branches overshadowing all of Normandy and England. But all of this was the future informing the past. At the time there was no sense of destiny, as illustrated by the fact that we know nothing of William's childhood. It is not even clear in which year he was born. It wasn't until 1034 that events suddenly began thrusting William towards a different life. To the fury of Normandy's nobles William's father, Duke Robert, decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a time consuming and dangerous undertaking. Robert would not be dissuaded, and made preparations for his departure. As the young duke had no heir to take over should he die on the journey, Robert persuaded his fellow nobles to accept William, the forgotten illegitimate child he'd had with Herleve, as his heir. The nobles had little choice but to agree. So the Duke of Normandy disappeared on his pilgrimage never to return. He died at Nicaea, in modern Turkey, early in July 1035. Unaccountably seven year old William the Bastard, as he was originally known, was Duke of Normandy!

A seven year old duke wasn't able to control Normandy, and initially Archbishop Robert of Rouen stepped in as a stabilising influence. But when he died in March 1037 Normandy descended into a state very near anarchy. William lived through what must have been a terrifying time. Tutors and advisors were being murdered all around him. Osbern, a steward, was killed during a fight which actually took place in William's bedroom. Unrest in the autumn of 1046 led to a concerted effort to remove William. The story goes that an attempt to assassinate William was made while he was at Valognes. A desperate night ride was required to escape to Falaise. William appealed to King Henry of France for protection. A royal army marched into Normandy in early 1047 with the aim of rescuing William from his enemies. Perhaps the king preferred a helpless boy as duke, rather than a stronger character who might cause problems for him. Inspite of what the later chroniclers might claim about the boy's preternatural qualities, William might have survived not through his strength, but because his weakness and youth meant King Henry of France did not consider him a threat.

The French invasion culminated in the Battle of Val-es-Dunes, on the river Orne. William is described by chroniclers fighting bravely in the battle, which we have no reason to doubt. But this battle was King Henry's victory. Chroniclers writing later when William was at the height of his power claimed that the Normans saw William as their leader from this point. William of Poitiers wrote: "The Normans feeling themselves mastered all bowed their necks before their lord" (quoted in William the Conqueror by David Douglas P 52). But as David Douglas says: "Such rhetoric... had to wait for subsequent events for its justification." Once again people were looking back and seeing an inevitability that was not there at the time.




Rochester Cathedral, built by the same man who built Rochester Castle - illustrating the combination of military and religious power.

Following the Battle of Val-es-Dunes William had to endure years of virtually ceaseless warfare. Between 1047 and 1049 William probably lost control of his own capital of Rouen to Guy of Burgandy. Then in 1052 the French king decided to ally himself with one of William's most dangerous enemies, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Perhaps William was not the helpless young boy he used to be. Now a married man, marrying Matilda of Flanders in 1053, William now seemed to be viewed as a potential threat. King Henry of France, the young duke's former supporter became his enemy, which led to acute crisis in Normandy. Later chroniclers claimed William's break with Henry as a proud moment of Norman independence. In fact William tried his best to prevent the split, but was swept along by a general insistence that Normandy had to stand up to France. In 1054 King Henry and his allies attempted to invade Normandy. By now William accepted that he had to fight, and did so resolutely, managing to defeat the French army at the Battle of Mortemer. It was now that William showed his qualities as a leader. He was an effective organiser, and combined ruthlessness with leniency, in a psychologically powerful good cop bad cop routine. This often broke enemies without a fight. More attacks followed, but William managed to survive them, and with King Henry's death in 1060 his position became a little more secure. A monastic revival also helped unify the once chaotic province, military and religious authority going hand in hand. This was to be a characteristic feature of William's reign. In a situation where no one would accept one man's authority, an attempt was made to appeal to a higher authority beyond humanity.

With Normandy stable William could now look to wider ambitions. William's claim to the English throne is complicated and still controversial. It is difficult to tell reality from retrospective propaganda that justified the Norman invasion of England after it happened. Did William visit Edward the Confessor in 1051, and receive an offer of the English throne? This is very unlikely. As we know William was rather busy at the time fighting for survival in Normandy. Nevertheless William began to think of himself as Edward the Confessor's natural successor, so some kind of offer could have been made. What exactly did the embittered, exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumieges say when he visited William in 1052? Perhaps in seeking support Robert mentioned his job of crowning English kings, and how he would like to crown William. William could easily have taken this as an endorsement. When England's most powerful noble Harold Godwineson was washed up at Ponthieu near Normandy in 1064 what exactly was he doing? He could have been on a mission from Edward to offer the English throne to William. He could have been looking for a wife, or seeking the release of members of his family held by William. It is now very hard to tell, because later writers wrote about the past in a way that was convenient for the future. Propaganda is the portrayal of past events to make them appear inevitable, so that they are accepted.




The Beach at Pevensey where William came ashore 28th September 1066

Whatever the truth, William was convinced of his claim. When Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, and Harold Godwineson was crowned king, William made preparations for invasion. Quotas for the supply of ships imposed on the Norman nobility indicate a fleet of around seven hundred and seventy ships. Organising a fleet of this size by the autumn of 1066 was a huge achievement. Then as King Harold of England fought a Norwegian invasion led by Harald Hardrada, William waited with his fleet at Saint-Valery. The northerly wind that blew Harald Hardrada's fleet across the north sea was keeping William's fleet in harbour. The English army led by King Harold scored a decisive victory over the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066. Meanwhile William, according to contemporary writers, was constantly praying for a change in the weather, and gazing at a weather vane on the church tower of Saint-Valery. Finally on 27th September the wind veered to the south, and that evening the fleet sailed led by William's galley carrying a lantern at its mast head. The army landed at Pevensey the next morning, almost unopposed. William decided to dig into a defensive position at Hastings. The town was then at the end of a peninsula, and could be easily fortified. The Normans then waited for fourteen days for Harold who was rushing south towards them.


Harold's plan was probably to contain William, cut off his line of retreat using the fleet, and then move in to destroy him. William knew his only chance was to attack immediately. He told his men the truth, that they were alone in a foreign country and fighting for their lives. If they wanted to live they had to win. At dawn on 14th October William moved towards Harold's army, which had reached the area of Senlac Ridge near Hastings the day before. The English were not prepared for such a sudden move by the Normans, but they still managed to quickly form an effective defensive position on the ridge. Fighting began at about 9am and continued all day, fortune moving one way and then the other. According to Ian Walker, an expert on King Harold, the idea that William gained the upper hand through such tactics as feigned withdrawals is not true. This made little difference and the battle continued on as before, with the Normans attacking a stubborn English line. With evening coming on, victory was in sight for the English. If the Normans could be held until nightfall, then William would have to fall back. On the following day fresh English troops would arrive, to face exhausted and beleaguered invaders. William would be finished. Knowing they were in acute danger the Normans launched one last frenzied attack. The English stood firm, until a stray arrow suddenly hit Harold in the face. Once news of this spread through the English army there was a sudden collapse in morale. The Normans broke through, and English ranks fell apart. And that is probably all that the battle turned on, one stray arrow.

Much effort went into giving the impression of inevitability to Norman victory. Ironically the most strangely convincing argument comes from the chronicler Eadmer, who admits that victory didn't seem inevitable at all. The Normans suffered such heavy losses during the battle that William could only have been saved by divine intervention. For Eadmer the critical uncertainty of the battle meant that victory was "entirely due to a miracle of God" (Historia Novorum P9: quoted Douglas P255). The battle turned on "luck" which Eadmer saw as divine intervention. Certainly a lot of luck had seen William through to this point. As a young boy he could so easily have been swept aside by all the powerful, ruthless figures around him. The fact that he survived can be ascribed to luck, which Eadmer sees as the most convincing demonstration of a controlling influence in human affairs.




Rochester Castle

William was crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster Abbey. He was now to face a life of constant struggle to maintain his position. As in Normandy, he sought to bolster his authority by appealing for divine support. The symbolism of William's Christmas Day coronation was carefully planned. The coronation service itself emphasised religious symbolism which had been introduced by the English king Edgar the Peaceable in 973. Military and religious power were closely combined. Bishop Gundulf was responsible for the building of Rochester Castle and the neigbouring Rochester Cathedral. Chronicles were possibly rewritten to mention offers of the throne to William which may not have have been made. The story of the invasion portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry also shows subtle manipulations - such as portraying King Harold being crowned by an archbishop who did not have papal authority to do the job.









Rougemont Castle, Exeter

William was to need all the help he could get in the years that followed. Beginning with an expedition to put down rebellion in Exeter in 1067, constant journeying was required to suppress unrest. Meanwhile there were attacks from Scandinavia in 1069, 1070 and 1075. Many of the castles William built all over the country to maintain control are still in evidence today. As well as guarding against rebellion in England there was also a constant threat of rebellion in Normandy to deal with, and relentless hostility from the French king. William had put his eldest son Robert in charge of Normandy, but this easily led young man was goaded by his friends into demanding independent control of Normandy. Robert's defeat of William at Gerboi in Normandy late in 1078 led to Malcolm of Scotland trying his luck at an invasion of England. William had to rush back north to deal with the Scots. William was helped ironically by Robert, who had come to his senses, and busied himself defeating the invasion his own actions had provoked. Then in 1082 William's half brother Odo rebelled against his authority, which encouraged Robert to have another go at a rebellion of his own.

The final crisis started to build in 1085 with preparations for a huge invasion by Canute IV of Denmark. Taxation was required to fund the army that would face this latest threat. This led to one of the most remarkable achievements of William's reign, the Domesday Book. This was a vast survey of property and land holding, used to calculate tax, and is an extraordinary historical record. The book, which is kept at the National Archives, in a practical sense was out of date even before it was finished. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle might claim that every ox, cow and pig was included, but between the beginning and end of the compilation of the Domesday Book many oxen, cows and pigs would have died and been born. The power of the book did not so much lie in its actual information but in the way it symbolised control and power, reaching into the smallest corners of people's lives. It was almost as if William was omnipotent and could see everything. The Domesday book could be seen as the culmination of efforts to symbolicaly link Williams royal power with an inevitable all-seeing God like power


The death of Canute IV back in Denmark meant the threatened invasion did not happen. But Robert was again planning rebellion in Normandy, and the French king was supporting him. In the summer of 1087 William was in Normandy fighting the French royal forces. Near Mantes William was taken violently ill with some kind of abdominal problem. He may have suffered an injury when he was thrown against the pommel of his saddle. William rested in Rouen for a few days, but when his condition worsened he asked to be taken to the priory of Saint-Gervas, on a hill just west of Rouen. As he lay dying William tried to block Robert's succession to the rule of any of his kingdoms. Robert, who did not attend his father at this time, was not, in William's opinion, to be trusted with government. Eventually, however, the gathered nobles managed to persuade the king to grant Normandy to Robert. England was given to the younger son William, who was ordered to depart for his kingdom without delay.

William the Conqueror died on the morning of 9th September 1087. After all the confusion over rewritten history and possible propaganda, the description of William's death in Ordericus Vitalis is painfully realistic: "the wealthiest... mounted their horses and departed in haste to secure their property. Whilst the inferior attendants, observing that their masters had disappeared, laid hands on arms, the plate, the linen, and the royal furniture, and hastened away, leaving the corpse almost naked on the floor of the cell" (Ordericus Vitalis Vol 3: quoted by Douglas P 362).



Ponds at the Hastings battlefield

William was an incredible character, very resilient and determined. And yet part of his accomplishment was to give the illusion of authority and order where none existed. Perhaps this is the work of any government. Nothing destined little William the Bastard, son of Herleve, daughter of a Falaise tanner, to be the Conqueror. Luck played a large part in events. But then what is luck? Eadmer thought luck was divine intervention. He saw luck as fate. He might be right. His argument is certainly the only one that accepted the true confusion of events. Personally I keep coming back to the wisdom of Forrest Gump:

"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Visits to illuminate the life of William, and England under Norman rule can be found in the Visits menu. Many Norman castles survive and can be visited. The Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman invasion of 1066 is kept in Bayeux, Normandy. An excellent copy can be seen at Reading Museum. The 1066 battlefield at Senlac Ridge has been preserved at Battle Abbey.