William the Conqueror Biography (1027-1087)

William the Conqueror was born the illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy and Herleva, his father’s mistress, daughter of Fulbert of Falaise. His exact date of birth is not known but he  is believed to have been born in 1027 or 1028. His illegitimacy meant he was generally referred to as William the Bastard for much of his early life.

Around 1031, William’s mother, Herleva, married Herluin de Conteville. They had two sons, Robert, who would become Count of Mortain in 1049 and Odo, who became Bishop of Bayeux the same year.

William the Conqueror 1027 - 1087
William the Conqueror – Duke of Normandy

 

William the Conqueror – Early Life

William was Robert’s only son and when he died in July 1035, returning from crusade, William succeeded him as Duke. He had a turbulent childhood becoming the ward of a number of prominent men, and a target for those who wanted to take the Duchy of Normandy from him, including Guy of Burgundy.

During his minority. William was placed in the custody of a number of prominent men. These include Alan of Brittany who died 1039 or 1040, Gilbert of Brionne who was killed within months of his appointment and Osbern who was murdered in Williams chamber while the young Duke was asleep. Some sources indicate that William’s uncle, Walter sometimes hid his young charge in the houses of peasants.

William survived the numerous attempts on his life and in 1046 he secured the backing of the King of France. and managed to defeat his enemy Guy of Burgundy at the Battle of Val-es-Dunes on 10th August 1047.

However, the  rebellions and discontent against William’s Dukedom continued. As he continued to consolidate his position, his long-time ally, King Henry I of France, began to see him as a threat and changed allegiance. Henry I gave his backing to William, Count of Arques and Geoffrey of Anjou. The fighting dragged on for ten years until William defeated the French King and the rebels at the Battle of Varaville in August 1057.

 

William the Conqueror – Marriage and Family

Matilda of Flanders
Matilda of Flanders wife of William the Conqueror

 

William first proposed to Matilda of Flanders in 1049 but she turned him down. However, the Duke was persistent in his suit and she eventually agreed to become his wife. Despite being forbidden to marry by the Pope on the grounds of their being too closely related, the couple married in 1050.

The couple had ten children:

Robert Duke of Normandy, known as Curthose 1052 – 1134
Richard, 1054 – 1075
Cecilia, 1055 – 1126
Adeliza, born 1055
King William II, known as Rufus c1057 – 1100
Constance, c1057 – 1090
Matilda, 1061 – c1068
Agatha 1064 – c1073
Adela, c1067 – 1137 – mother of King Stephen
King Henry I, known as Beauclerc, 1068 – 1135

 

William the Conqueror – Background to his claim to the English throne

In 1002, King Aethelred the Unready married Emma, daughter of Richard Duke of Normandy. The couple had three children, Edward, Alfred and Godgifu. In 1016, Canute seized the English throne and married Emma of Normandy. To protect her three children by Aethelred, Emma sent them to Normandy.

Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy was the sister of Robert of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror. This meant that Emma’s children and William were cousins and likely knew each other. In 1042, following the death of Harthacnut, the son of Canute and Emma, the Witan asked Edward to return as England’s King.

Having been in exile for 26 years, Edward was a stranger to the English people. In order to rule effectively he needed the support of the nobility. Earl Godwin gave Edward his support in return for Edward’s marriage to his daughter, Edith. However, Edward maintained his links with Normandy and was visited many times by his Norman family and friends.

In the Summer of 1051, Edward exiled the Godwin family following Godwin’s refusal to punish the people of Dover for the deaths of a number of Norman nobles that were accompanying his his brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne. A few months later, William of Normandy visited Edward, possibly seeking his backing for the Pope to approve his marriage to Matilda. Still angry with the Godwin family it is possible that Edward may have suggested that William would succeed to the English throne if Edward remained childless.

The Godwin family returned to England in 1052 and Harold Godwinson succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex in 1053. Harold gave his full support to King Edward.

In 1064, Godwinson set sail from Bosham. The reason for his voyage is not known but he was shipwrecked off the coast of Ponthieu and taken to William’s court. While in Normandy, Harold accompanied William into battle against Conan of Brittany and was knighted by William for his service. William later claimed that before returning to England, Harold swore an oath on holy relics to support William’s claim to the English throne on the death of Edward.

Harold Oath
Harold swearing to uphold William’s claim to the throne – Bayeux Tapestry

 

William the Conqueror – 1066

Edward the Confessor died on 5th or 6th January. The Witan met and appointed Harold Godwinson as King Harold II on 6th January, he was crowned on the same day. William learned of Harold’s treachery at the end of January 1066. However, rather than rushing to mount an invasion as quickly as possible, William sent an envoy to the Pope to press his claim to the English crown based on the oath sworn by Harold in 1064. The Pope supported William’s claim and sent him a papal banner to carry into battle.

William began planning his invasion of England. Using the Pope’s approval for his invasion and promises of land in England for those that joined him, he was able to amass a great army. Exact numbers are not known but it is believed that William’s force numbered between 7,000 and 10,000 men and he had between 700 and 800 ships.

William the Conqueror landed in England at Pevensey on 28th September 1066. His decision to sail this late in the year may have been because he learned that Harold Godwinson had been forced north to deal with the invasion by Harald Hardrada or he may have been waiting for favourable winds.

After realising that there was insufficient livestock or grain in Pevensey to support his vast army, William made the decision to move to Hastings. Crowhurst, now a small village 5 miles north west of Hastings, was owned by Harold Godwinson. It is known that William the Conqueror raided Crowhurst and burned houses before continuing on to Hastings. Scene 47 from the Bayeux depicts this event.

Crowhurst Bayeux Tapestry
Burning of Crowhurst – Bayeux Tapestry

 

William made camp in Hastings and waited for Godwinson to return from the north. In early October 1066, his spies alerted him that Harold was marching south. On 13th October Harold was camped on Caldbec Hill 7 miles north west of Hastings. Early the next morning, William’s army was marching north to meet the Anglo-Saxons. Harold had arrayed his army in a shield wall formation along the ridge of Senlac Hill which meant William had to take the lower ground. The image below is taken from the bottom of Senlac Hill, thought to be just behind William’s line. The shield wall is thought to have been positioned just in front of the abbey walls.

Senlac Hill
Senlac Hill looking up to Battle Abbey

 

The battle began at around 9am with a fanfare of trumpets followed by a volley of arrows fired by the Normans. The Normans made repeated cavalry and infantry attacks in a bid to break the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. At around 11am there were shouts that Duke William had fallen and a large number of Breton soldiers, attacking the shield wall turned and fled down the hill. A party of Anglo-Saxons led by Harold’s brothers Leofwine and Gyrth chased after them. William, however, was not dead and, seeing what was happening, sent additional soldiers to surround the Anglo-Saxons. All those that left the shield wall, including Harold’s brothers were killed.

Despite the death of his brothers and those that had been killed, Harold managed to quickly fill the gap in the shield wall and the battle continued. The battle lasted all day but in the late afternoon King Harold II was killed. The traditional story that he was killed by an arrow in his eye is now thought to be false, evidenced by the fact that the arrow depicted in the Bayeux tapestry was added in the 19th century. Rather, it is thought that he was cut down by a Norman knight.

Harold Godwinson Arrow
Harold Godwinson hit by an arrow – Bayeux Tapestry

 

After the battle, William returned to Hastings were he waited to receive the submission of the English nobility. However, this was not forthcoming and to William’s extreme annoyance the Witan crowned 14 year old Edgar Aetheling King of England.

Determined to take England, in late October William marched his army east and took the port of Dover and the Roman fort that was positioned on the hill above. Having secured Dover he marched to Canterbury. By early December William had taken control of south-east England and marched towards London. The Witan realised they did not have sufficient men to defeat William and offered their submission.

 

William the Conqueror – King William I

William was crowned King William I of England on 25th December 1066 at Westminster cathedral. He was popularly referred to as William the Conqueror and remains known by that title to this day. Despite being crowned King, his position was not secure. For the first decade of his reign he faced repeated uprisings against his rule by the Anglo-Saxons, most notably those in the north and the family of Harold Godwinson. They were all ruthlessly suppressed, the north by William’s pursuant of a scorched earth policy, known as the Harrying of the North, which led to the deaths of up to 100,000 people from starvation.

William the Conqueror also faced repeated rebellions and conflicts in Normandy and was frequently recalled to Normandy. While in Normandy he left England in the hands of his trusted Norman allies. William also faced dissention from his oldest son Robert, possibly because Robert felt he should have more power. Father and son found themselves on opposite sides in battle in 1079. By 1080 they had reached agreement after William promised Robert that he would bequeath the Dukedom of Normandy to him. Although the latter years of William’s reign were more settled, there continued to be unrest throughout his lands.

After his coronation in 1066, William the Conqueror made good his promise to those who fought for him at Hastings, and began giving areas of land to Norman nobles. He also introduced the Feudal System, used in Normandy, whereby Kings granted large estates to nobles (lords or vassals) in exchange for military service and loyalty. These nobles, in turn, granted portions of their land to lesser nobles or knights, who pledged allegiance and military support. Peasants worked the land in exchange for protection from their lords.

In 1070, work began on an Abbey at Senlac Hill, the altar of which, was to be the site where Harold Godwinson fell. Four Benedictine monks from France were brought to the Abbey to begin the order. The abbey was popularly known as Battle Abbey and the town soon grew up around the abbey bears the name Battle.

Battle Abbey ruins
Battle Abbey Ruins 2022

 

In 1078 William the Conqueror ordered work to begin of a fortified tower to be built on the banks of the river in London. Made of white stone it became known as the White Tower and now forms the inner part of the Tower of London.

William was a great lover of hunting and in 1079 ordered that number of wooded areas be subject to Forest Law. This law stipulated that everything in the designated area belonged to the king. This made life especially difficult for the common people who relied on the woodland for wood and food. When William decided to create a New Forest in Hampshire, many people were forced to leave their homes.

In 1085 King William ordered a survey of every person and every town in the land to determine the wealth of everyone in his kingdom. The survey was completed and documented by late 1086 in a volume known as the Domesday Book. It is thought that he was planning to use the information to tax his subjects.

In late 1086, William the Conqueror was forced to return to Normandy to deal with another dispute. William had become less active in his later years and had gained weight. Nevertheless he continued to ride into battle. In July 1087 he sustained an injury. Some sources point to an injury to his abdomen possibly caused by the pommel of his saddle. The wound did not heal and William the Conqueror died on 9th September 1087 in Rouen. He is buried at the Abbey of St Etienne in Caen.

William the Conqueror Tomb
The tomb of William the Conqueror in the Abbey of St Etienne, Caen

William’s son, Robert Curthose succeeded as Duke of Normandy while his son William Rufus succeeded as King William II of England.