William the Conqueror
William is the fellow who conquered England in 1066, for which he
gained the nickname "the Conqueror," although England was not his
only conquest. Nevertheless, it was the Norman conquest of
England that forms a watershed event in English history and in
the history of Europe in general.
The story itself is interesting, and its effects were far-
reaching. This narrative concerns itself primarily with the
actual conquest, with some pages devoted at the beginning to
setting the scene, and several pages at the end discussing the
immediate consequences of the the invasion.
Normandy in the 10th Century
Originally a part of Charlemagne's empire, Normandy was fairly
wealthy, with lots of monasteries and small towns. Lying on the
northern coast of France, it became a favorite and easy target
for Vikings in the 9thc. It lost most of its monasteries and was
not much of a prize when a Viking came to the King of the West
Franks in 911 with a proposal.
The Viking was Rolf, a Dane with many men at his command. He
offered to defend the coast against other Vikings in return for a
title. And, naturally, he and his people would convert to
Christianity. So, Rolf the Viking became Duke of Normandy, and
the King of the West Franks breathed a deep sigh of relief.
The inhabitants were Vikings, but most people simply referred to
them as the North Men. The land given to them took their name:
Normandy. In both France and England, Norman is also a common
The new duchy was a frontier land, filled with constant warfare.
Viking raids continued, of course, but the Normans fought among
themselves and with their neighbors. And Normandy became
stronger, gathering territories and becoming one of the more
powerful duchies in France. The Norman dukes owed allegiance to
the King of the Franks, but the French king was a weak, shadowy
figure in these years, and the dukes were essentially
The state of things in the 10th century can be seen in the names
of the dukes: William Longsword, for example, grandfather of the
Conqueror. As with the kings of the day, the office of duke was
no more powerful than the man who bore the title, and Normandy
was fortunate to have several men who were strong.
England in the 11th Century
The Vikings hit England hard, too. The earliest raids date back
to Charlemagne's day and continued without a break. Alfred the
Great won his reputation in battles with the Danes. By the early
11th century, the Danes had won so thoroughly that there were
actually two kings of England who were also kings of Denmark.
The second of these was Canute, who resided in England rather
than in Denmark for much of his reign. The inhabitants of England
were the ancient Celts, who now were found only in Wales,
Scotland, and Cornwall; the Saxons, who had driven back the
Britons in the 6th century; and the Danes, who had settled in the
eastern third of the country. Of the three, the Saxons were the
most numerous and it was Saxon kings who had ruled before the
Saxon England was not a feudal state. The peasantry was made up
of free farmers, plus slaves; the nobility were aristocrats but
there were few cases of land in exchange for service. The Church
was run mainly from the monastery, not the cathedral. The king
was served by a national militia, plus his own retainers. Nobles
fought alongside him only as allies, not as vassals. The country
was poor and sparsely populated. There were very few castles;
very few stone buildings. The earls were more powerful than the
king. Oriented toward the North Sea, not the continent.
A Comparison: Normandy and England in 1030
England was a Saxon state that still bore many of the
characteristics of the older Germanic kingship. The earls were
as powerful as the king himself, and were rivals as often as
allies. The king's army consisted of his household, his barons
and their retainers, and a general levy of the Saxon peasantry.
The Church was centered more on the monastery than on the
cathedral. And England looked more to the North Sea than across
Normany, on the other hand, was developing as a feudal state, at
least under William. He held his barons under much closer
control, and was both wealthier and more powerful than any of
them. The duke controlled the Church, too, through its central
power of the Archbishop of Rouen.
Yet, despite real differences, the fates of the two were tangled
together, and this led to the eventual conflict.
Born 1028 at Falaise in Normandy, William was the son of Robert
I, Duke of Normandy, and Herleve, a girl of Falaise of uncertain
parentage. Although illegitimate, he was, nevertheless, a direct
descendant of Rolf the Viking and had a good claim to the throne.
His claim was all the stronger when his father went on a
pilgrimage in 1034 and died on the return
trip, making William duke in 1035 at the age of 7. Before
leaving, Robert brought forward William and had him recognized as
Upon hearing of Robert's death, a number of notables, including
the Archbishop of .Rouen (who was Robert's brother), moved to
protect and defend the young boy. His minority was a period of
grim disorder. Several of those close to William were
assassinated. His tutor took to sleeping in the same room with
the boy in order to protect him. A number of times William had to
flee in the night and hide out in peasant cottages.
When William was 18 he became duke officially, with no tutor or
regent. This led immediately to a rebellion as the barons sought
to test their new lord's strength. He crushed the rebellion and
firmly established himself as being of age and in charge.
His early adult years were filled with wars and rebellions,
including a war with King Henry of France, and with his neighbors
in Brittany, Maine and Anjou. In 1049, William married Matilda,
daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, forging an alliance
between two of the most powerful northern territories.
By 1060 William had a considerable reputation as a warrior, for
he was generally successful in his wars. He was a tenacious
opponent, brutal at times. Many of the wars were fought against
great odds, increasing both his reputation and his confidence in
One result of these wars was a very large scale transfer of land,
either in the form of conquered territory, or in confiscations
from rebellious vassals. The duke gave these back out to those
loyal to him, transforming his barons into an aristocracy that
was loyal to him.
During these years William was able to make himself the arbiter
of disputes, the fount of favors, and the ultimate authority in
the duchy. So the barons increasingly served rather than
Similarly, the duke ruled the Church. The nobles founded many
monasteries and the archbishopric of Rouen was coterminous with
the duchy. The powerful families controlled the ecclesiastical
positions, and all served the duke.
In the 10thc, Vikings hit both England and Normandy very hard,
devastating and dominating the area. When the Danes took England
in 1013, the West Saxon royal family fled to Normandy.
The kings in exile did not forget or relinquish their claim to be
the true kings of England. Edward the Confessor was the claimant,
and he lived in Normandy until he became king in 1042. William
was 14 at that time. The Danes and Norwegians continued to try to
re-claim England over the next two decades, but without
There were, therefore, close ties and intertwining interests
between the Danes (and the Norwegians, who inherited the Danish
claims), the Saxons, and the Normans. William grew up well-
acquainted with the stituation.
The Succession Issue
Back in England, Edward found that his own earls were every bit
as dangerous as the Vikings, and he turned to his Norman friends
for succor in his struggles them. He gave fiefs to Norman lords,
trying to keep the Saxon barons from becoming too strong.
In 1051 Edward, who was childless, carried this plan to its
ultimate conclusion when he designated William (now aged
23) as his heir. This was a move that surprised and dismayed a
number of Saxon lords who felt that one of them was the more
natural choice. But Edward felt that only the Normans, who had
sheltered him in his exile, were his trusted friends.
Among the Saxon earls, Godwin was the most powerful in England in
the 1040s. He and his fellows almost completely dominated
politics and power in this decade, and these were the ones Edward
feared. Godwin's son, Harold, succeeded his father in 1053 and
carried on his father's ambitions. In fact, Harold Godwinson
emerged as not only the most powerful lord in England but also as
the leader of the anti-Norman party, and the logical Saxon
candidate for the throne. But Edward did not like the man much.
Harold had several quarrels with Edward, but they always made it
The Danes, too, had a claim, and through them, the Norwegians.
The principal individual here was Harold Hardraada, a famous
warrior related to the line of Canute. In the 1060s Hardraada
gained control of both Norway and Denmark and began planning in
earnest to take back England. There was much anti-Edward,
anti-Norman sentiment in the north of England, where Viking
influence was strong anyway, and Harold had good reason to hope
for success on the battlefield.
So, by the early 1060s, Edward the Confessor was faced with three
forces contending for the English throne: the Normans, who could
claim the throne by right of bequest; the Saxons, who claimed it
by right of tradition and nationality, and who had the advantage
of being on the spot; and the Norwegians, who had a better legal
claim than the Saxons, but who realistically could win it only by
conquest--something Vikings were rather good at.
It was not a situation that lent itself to diplomacy, but Edward
was determined to make one more attempt at a peaceful solution.
In 1064 Edward asked Harold Godwinson to go to Normandy and there
to confirm publicly Duke William's right of succession. Harold
agreed. It may seem odd that Harold would do this, but he wasn't
ready yet for open rebellion, and to refuse the king's command in
this would be an act of rebellion.
Besides, he felt he could easily recant any promises he might
make, once the old king was dead. A few easy promises now, and
later . . . well, who knew? Moreover, Harold would meet with
William as equals, and all would know who was the greater
But chance played havoc with Harold's plans. In crossing the
Channel, the earl was blown off course by a storm, and was cast
ashore in Ponthieu. There, he was captured by Count
local lord. This sort of thing was a common enough practice, for
ransoming nobles was a profitable business. Count Guy figured to
hang on to his unexpected prize and extract a tidy sum for
Duke William, though, was Guy's lord. Instead of allowing him to
hold Harold for ransom, he immediately demanded Guy release
Harold into William's care. Count Guy did not dare defy William,
but it must have distressed him to let his prize catch go.
William sent an armed guard to escort Harold to
Caen. Instead of
arriving in full dress, as a powerful baron, Harold was arriving
alone and under guard, at once in William's debt for having
rescued him from Count Guy and yet also uncomfortably like a
prisoner being taken to court.
Nearly helpless, Harold was forced to swear an oath of fealty to
William and to swear further that he would advocate William's
cause in England. In return for this, William generously made the
great English earl a Norman knight. Harold didn't much like
William anyway, and this episode set his teeth on edge.
There is a story that, in the swearing of these oaths, Harold
placed his hand on a table. He did this fully intending to break
his word. Once the oath was sworn, William's men whipped off the
covering or top, revealing sacred relics underneath. Swearing on
relics was a very much more serious matter, and William had
perpetrated the trick in order to out-fox Harold, whom he
suspected of duplicity.
There is no contemporary evidence for this trick, but it fits in
well with the temperment of the two men, with William always one
step ahead of Harold.
In any case, Harold returned to England, having had much the
worse in the encounter. Despite all, however, he was determined
to be the next king of England and set about ensuring his
The Death of Edward the Confessor
On 5 January 1066 Edward the Confessor died. On 6 January, Harold
Godwinson, after having ridden all night, was crowned king in
London. He claimed that Edward on his deathbed changed his will
and designated him as successor and true king. He even produced a
document proving it, though no one else knew of its existence.
It is just possible that Edward changed his mind, as some
accounts say that Edward was out of his head toward the end.
Perhaps he did so in delirium; perhaps he did so urged by
councillors sympathetic to Harold; and perhaps he did no such
thing and Harold's document was a forgery.
It truly did not matter. The question of succession was certainly
not going to be settled by documents and lawyers. William
immediately sent a protest, but he knew war would be the
only way to enforce his claims, and he set preparations in motion
Marshalling of Forces
Harold Hardraada had already been planning an invasion and was
practically ready to go, when he was delayed by rebellions within
his own lands and was unable to go until September.
William spent the summer building a fleet and gathering his army
for the invasion. He was ready in August, but the fleet was
bottled up at
Saint-ValČry by contrary winds. Attack by sea was
always risky and William did not dare to chance it when the winds
made it difficult to land.
Harold Godwinson gathered his army in southern England (his
natural power base) and did what he could to rally support.
But he had supply problems, and his army was not tied to him by
personal oaths of loyalty. So on September 8 he dismissed all but
his personal retainers.
On 18 September, Harold Hardraada landed on the Humber River with
a huge fleet and a large army, only ten days after Harold had
been forced to disband the better part of his own forces. On 20
September, the Vikings won a victory over the northern earls
and occupied the city of York.
Harold immediately re-gathered his army and marched north to meet
the invaders. On 25 September, the Saxons and the Norwegians met
at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It was a hard-fought, day-long
battle with heavy losses on both sides. Neither side had won
decisively, but the Viking invasion depended on resounding
victories and Hardraada had not achieved this. The following
day, a second battle at Fulford destroyed the Vikings utterly.
This marks the last major Viking invasion of England.
It was a brilliant victory for Harold. He had marched the length
of England in record time, going into battle at Stamford Bridge
with scarcely any rest. The Saxon infantry had won a decisive
victory, and Hardraada himself had been killed. It seemed certain
that the earl would remain king.
Then, on 27 September, the wind turned and William sailed,
landing near the town of Hastings the next day.
The fact that William still had an army is a testament to his
abilities as an organizer and a leader. He had managed to keep
his vassals by his side, and even kept the sailors in hand, for
long weeks of frustration. When the opportunity finally came, he
was ready. This was most unusual for medieval armies.
William immediately built some defensive works around his
position at Hastings and gained control of the surrounding
countryside. He knew Harold would be coming for him.
On 6 October, Harold Godwinson returned to London and sent out a
call to raise more troops. His forces had suffered cruelly at
Stamford Bridge and he needed all the soldiers he could raise.
But he could not wait long, for every day that passed made
William stronger. On 11 October, Harold marched to Hastings,
arriving the night of 13-14 October. The next morning, he gave
The Battle of Hastings
We know rather few details about the battle itself. Harold took a position on some low
hills and the Normans attacked that position. It was a hard fought battle that lasted the
entire day, neither side able to get the better of the other.
As the day wore on, however, superior Norman discipline began to tell. Some of the
Saxon forces began to melt away. Toward evening, Harold himself was killed by an arrow,
but by the time he died the battle was clearly lost.
The story of the Battle of Hastings, and the events surrounding it, are told in the
remarkable Bayeux Tapestry. Norman knights pursued Saxons well
into the night, and by the next day there was no one to stand against the invader. William
called his men back and set about securing his position. He had won a great battle, but he
had not yet won England, and he needed to keep his army together.
William sent out news of his victory and invited the Saxon lords
to recognize him as the legitimate king. He waited for five days
and none did. Instead, they withdrew to their own lands, to
defend their own interests.
By the end of November William controlled most of the old lands
of Wessex. In December he took London. More and more lords now
submitted to him, yielding to events. He was crowned king on
Christmas Day, 1066.
One of his first acts was to build a fortress in London, a tactic
he used in several towns. This one became famous though: the
Tower of London, the Norman core of which still stands.
Now that he was a crowned king, William set about imposing his
rule on England. He spent five years quelling rebellions and
establishing Norman authority, building many castles and stocking
them with men brought from Normandy. Those who fought with him at
Hastings did very well, receiving lands all over England as
The conqueror was thorough, and by 1073 he was able to return to
Normandy. He spent most of the next twelve years there, dealing
with various matters, including a rebellion of his own son in
league with the French king. He returned to England in 1085 to
deal with a combined Saxon revolt and Viking invasion (they had
not given up, having mounted raids in 1069 and 1075).
In short, England did not fall into William's lap at Hastings.
The army of Harold Godwinson was destroyed, but the Saxon English
resisted the Normans for years, and Norman authority was
established only through brute force. In truth, the Saxons
greatly expedited the Conqueror's work, for through their
rebellions many of their best leaders died or were exiled, and
much Saxon wealth was confiscated by Normans.
Aftermath: The Domesday Book
After the conquest, William decided on another ambitious
underaking--nothing less than a general inventory of his new
realm. He appointed surveyors, inspectors who were empowered to
visit every fief and village in England, there to record in
detail the wealth and legal obligations of each.
The resulting collection of records is known as the Domesday Book,
a veritable treasure for historians. It records how much
land a knight held, how many villages were there, how many
buildings in the village, even the number of cattle and yield of
grain. Historians have long used this source to understand the
social and economic structure of 11th century England. William
used it to assess nicely the wealth and military strength he had
at his command as king of England.
The Domesday Book is unique in the Middle Ages. No other king
attempted such an inventory. No other king possessed the great
authority needed to force reluctant vassals to divulge such
information. The Book shows William's keen mind and powerful will
at work. The fact that there were no others shows how little
medieval monarchs knew of their own power.
Aftermath: The Salisbury Oath
The rebellion that brought William back to England was a serious
one, in which the rebels cooperated with Viking forces. It cost
William considerable effort to suppress it, and in its wake he
made a new arrangement with his barons.
William ordered his nobility to the Salisbury plain where they
swore an oath of fealty directly to him. This relationship was
unique in Europe at the time. Usually, a minor knight might hold
a few acres from a baron, who in turn held the land from a count
or earl, who in turn held large tracts of the king. But in 1086
William forced all his vassals to swear service directly to him
for their fiefs.
Here again we see William's clear-mindedness and pragmatism. It
is likely that other kings thought of doing what William did, or
longed for it, but no French or German king ever had the
remarkable authority and power that the Conqueror did. Indeed,
even later English kings found their authority fragmented and
attenuated by divided loyalties among the baronage. The Salisbury
Oath was possible not only because William could conceive of it,
but because he was king of a conquered people and could achieve
His eldest son, Robert, rebelled against him in 1078, in
Normandy. Originally, Robert was to have inherited both Normandy
and England. This revolt caused William to reject his oldest as a
fit heir to the crown of England. Robert became duke of Normandy
and William II became king of England.
This had profound implications for both nations. Had it turned
out that Robert succeeded his father as both Duke of Normandy and
King of England, he would have been one of the strongest monarchs
in Europe. Normandy would have been a part of England and would
have been pulled steadily away from French control; or, perhaps,
England would have been pulled more into a French orbit.
In any event, because of the family quarrel, Normandy and England
would go their separate ways.
Death of William
William returned to Normandy after Salisbury, for he was at war
with the King of France again. He fell ill while campaigning,
and was taken to a monastery at Saint-Gervais. He died on 9
September 1087. The great lords with him quickly departed,
including his son, William Rufus, hurrying back to their castles
and estates, the better to guard their interests.
What happened to William after his death provides an interesting
example of the vagaries of fortune.
The quick flight of the nobility left only the lesser attendants
with the body, and when the servants looked around and saw no
great lords about, they lost all discipline. The chronicler
Orderic Vitalis says,"Observing that their masters had
disappeared, [they] laid hands on the arms, the plate, the linen,
and the royal furniture, and hastened away, leaving the corpse
almost naked on the floor of the cell."
His body was brought to Caen. The funeral procession was
interrupted when a fire broke out in the town. Those carrying the
coffin put it down, rushed off to fight the fire, then returned
when the fire was out to continue the procession.
The procession arrived at the cathedral at Caen finally. A lovely
service was held. The eulogies were disrupted, however, when
Ascelin, a local man, rose to protest that he was the owner of
the ground in which the king was to be buried. He complained
that he had not been paid and loudly demanded his rights. Someone
came and settled him down, paid him, and the services resumed.
As the body was being placed in the stone coffin, the attendants
accidentally broke one of the limbs, releasing such a foul stench
that the priests had to hurry the service to an undignified
close. The cathedral quickly emptied.
His memorial was beautiful, at least. Chroniclers tell us this,
for it has not survived. In 1562, Calvinists completely ruined
it, looting the tomb. The body disappeared at this time. Eighty
years later, a new monument was built, likewise beautiful. In it
was re-buried what was left of William: a thigh bone that a
priest claimed had been rescued from the Calvinist sack.
The new monument was destroyed in its turn during the
revolutionary riots of 1793. Today, William has only a stone slab
to commemorate him. Local tradition asserts that the thigh bone
is still under the slab. But it is a sorry survival for the
Effects of the Conquest
The effects of the Conquest were numerous and ran deep. One of
the most immediate and most serious was the almost complete
transfer of power at the top of society from Saxon to Norman
William consistently sought ways and excuses to remove Saxons
from power, but the Saxons themselves were most obliging. Many
went into exile. Many were killed in the invasion and later
rebellions. Many more were simply dispossessed. By 1086, 80% of
the fiefs were in Norman hands (some held by Flemings and
William brought with him the centralizing tendencies and
techniques he had followed in Normandy. William as king held one-
fifth of all land in England; this was a far greater estate than
held by any French king. A quarter was held by the Church. Half
the fiefs belonged to Norman lords, but their holdings were
scattered rather than concentrated, so they could never become
rivals to royal power. William was quite careful about this--he
did not want to create another Earl of Wessex to rival the
One element in William's control of England was a military
innovation he brought with him from France: stone castles.
England had few, if any, stone castles before the Conqueror.
After him, the landscape was transformed: 84 built by 1100. These
castles were always given to Norman lords and many were built in
areas prone to rebellion. The castles were all but impregnable
and served as Norman anchors in a Saxon sea.
A long-term change was the change of language. The Normans spoke
French, and French now became the language of government and the
nobility. It remained so until the 15thc. Henry II, Richard the
Lion-Hearted, even Edward Longshanks, all spoke French. Language
was a barrier and a divide between the Norman lords and their
The Robin Hood legend has strong echoes of the division.
Remember, all the bad guys in the legend are Normans, while all
the good guys are Saxons. Never mind that the ultimate hero is
Richard Lion-Heart, whose father was born in Anjou; the legend is
filled with anachronisms, like any good legend. But the
antagonism between Norman and Saxon in the Robin Hood stories
reflected a real one that lasted long after the death of the
The Norman Conquest brought profound changes in landholding and
in politics. Prior to the invasion, there were freeholders in
England--nobles who held title to their own lands. William
brought that to an end. The formula was nullus terre sans
seigneur, a lovely phrase that combines Latin with French. It
means: no land without a lord.
When he granted lands to his Norman lords, it was granted in
exchange for service. When he confirmed Saxon lords in their
holdings, he brought them under the same obligations. And he
imposed heavy demands on his vassals, requiring of them the
service of many more knights than he was able to require in
Normandy, where tradition placed limits on the rights of the
To illustrate: in England, 11 lords owed 60 or more knights each;
27 lords owed 25 or more; 6 bishoprics and 3 abbeys owed 40 or
more. In Normandy, in contrast, only a handful of lords owed even
more than 10 knights. This, too, survived for a long time. This
is why, even though England was a much less populous country than
France, the English king was able to field armies of comparable
size. He simply had direct command of more knights.
William instituted a great expansion of the royal forest, at the
expense of the nobility. He introduced the King's Council, the
curia regis, which gave advice to the king and sat in judgment on
nobles accused of serious crimes.
William also brought with him the Norman church, with its
Romanesque church architecture and its reforming spirit. The old
English church was still centered on the monastery. The new
church drew its strength from the cathedrals in the towns. And he
continued his Norman practice of appointing bishops as he saw
fit, granting sees as rewards to selected families.
Harder to define, but no less important, the Conquest oriented
England away from Scandinavia and towards France. Because of the
strong Danish influence, England had had much to do with Denmark
and Norway and rather little to do with France. Now, England's
fate was bound up with that of France, and the consequences of
this would reverberate for centuries.
Through all these changes, local government remained untouched:
the shires and their reeves, the shire court, the Danegeld, the
national militia. There was a gradual loss of freedom for the
peasants, but also an end to slavery (which was still practiced
in Saxon England). Saxon tradition therefore survived at the
local level and among the peasantry, further perpetuating the
rift between conquerors and conquered.