William the Conqueror

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William the Conqueror

Born c. 1027

Died 1087

Norman king of England

W illiam I, better known as William the Conqueror, was an illegitimate child who grew up to become one of the most powerful men in Western Europe. In 1066, he launched an invasion of England and gained control after defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The victory of William and the Normans forever changed the character of England. He instituted new laws and greatly increased the power of English kings over noblemen. He also initiated a new line of English royalty, and even today the British royal house is distantly related to William. But the greatest mark on history left by William came with the influence of the Normans on aspects of English life ranging from architecture to language.

William's beginnings

The ancestors of William's father, Duke Robert I of Normandy, were Vikings or "Northmen"; hence the name they took on when they settled in France: Normans. William's mother, Herleve (ur-LEV), was French, the daughter of a tanner. As their name implied, tanners were responsible for tanning cowhides, work which usually involved treating the leather with cow's urine. It was not a very pleasant background, but the fact that William was illegitimate (i.e., his parents were not married) was far more unpleasant in the eyes of his neighbors. It would be years before he gained full acceptance within the community.

Duke Robert and Herleve had another child, a girl named Adelaide, and later Robert arranged for Herleve to marry a powerful nobleman, with whom she had two sons, Odo and Robert. These two half-brothers of William would later play an important role in his career. Duke Robert went on to marry the sister of Canute, Danish king of England (ruled 1016–35), but the marriage did not produce any children. In 1035, he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and before leaving he convinced the nobles within the duchy (an area ruled by a duke) of Normandy to recognize William as his legitimate heir.

As it turned out, Duke Robert died on the return trip. William was only seven or eight at the time, and the next years were difficult ones as he attempted to maintain control over Normandy. Both men appointed to act as his guardians and advisors were killed, but by the age of fifteen William, recently knighted, had emerged as a powerful force in his own right.

Securing his power

William survived a rebellion in 1046, when he was about nineteen, and proved his abilities as a leader; therefore King Henry I of France asked for his help in a 1051 campaign. According to the feudal system, William's people owed him their loyalty in exchange for his protection, and likewise William owed the king his loyalty in exchange for Henry's protection. William won the king's favor by serving him well, but their relations would sour later, when William's power threatened to overshadow that of the king.

William assisted Henry in subduing Geoffrey Martel, count of Anjou (ahn-ZHOO), and conducted a successful siege, or attack, on a city controlled by Geoffrey. The people of the city taunted William by hanging out hides from the town walls bearing the insult "Hides for the tanner!" Angered, William destroyed the city and executed many of its citizens. Geoffrey fled for his life.

Recognizing that his illegitimacy would be a continuing source of challenges to his authority, William made up his mind to marry well. After years of careful negotiations, in 1052 or 1053 he married Matilda of Flanders. Despite the fact that the marriage had complex but highly significant political reasons behind it, it appears that it was a happy one. They must have made a strange-looking couple, since William was a large man and Matilda stood only four feet tall, but together they had four sons and five or six daughters.

Eyes on England

By the early 1060s, a number of things were falling into line for William. In 1060, both King Henry and Geoffrey of Anjou died, removing two possible opponents. At the same time, William enjoyed good relations with the powerful Catholic Church, which gave its blessing to his next project—the most important one of his life.

For a long time, it had appeared that England was up for grabs, as the power of its Anglo-Saxon kings began to fade. The Normans had first established a foothold there in 1002, when Emma of Normandy married King Ethelred the Unready. Their half-Norman son Edward the Confessor became king in 1042, and when he died in early January 1066, many Normans took this as a sign that the time had come to place their claim on the throne of England.

However, the Godwinesons, a powerful Anglo-Saxon family, believed themselves to be the rightful rulers. The witan, England's ruling council, declared Harold Godwineson (c. 1022–1066) king, but Harold would rule for less than a year.

The Norman Invasion

Harold knew that the Normans were coming, but when the invasion had not occurred by the early fall of 1066, he sent his army home. Then he learned that another Harold, king of Norway, was attempting to invade from the north. On September 25, the two armies met at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, and though the English won, the battle exhausted them. Taking advantage of this opportunity, William landed his army in southern England on September 28, and the next day took the town of Hastings.

The English and Normans fought at Hastings on October 14, and though Harold's army put up a good fight, it was no match for the seven thousand Norman warriors. Harold himself died in battle, and now England belonged to William, who received the English crown on Christmas Day.

Norman rule in England

As he had done earlier in Normandy, William spent the coming years securing his power, and in so doing he faced a number of foes—including his son Robert and his brother Odo. Robert had a powerful ally in King Philip I of France, who hoped to gain control of Normandy, and though William gained the victory over all his foes (he sent Robert away, and had Odo imprisoned), the conflicts forced him to devote much of his reign to warfare.

William also instituted a number of reforms designed to strengthen his hold on the throne. Going against the principles of feudalism, which spread power among many nobles, he concentrated as much wealth and authority as he could in the hands of the king. As part of this process, in 1082 he ordered an intensive study of the lands and properties in England, the Domesday Book.

Meanwhile, the most lasting effects of the Norman invasion began to work their way into English culture. Norman architecture would prove highly influential on English buildings for centuries to come, but even more important was the Norman effect on the English language. The French-speaking Normans brought a whole new vocabulary to England, whose language was closely related to German. As a result, English today has an amazing array of words, some derived from French and Latin, others from German.

A sad death

In spite of his greatness as a leader, William's latter years were sad ones. He grew extraordinarily fat, so much so that on a military campaign in the summer of 1087, he injured his stomach on his pommel, or saddlehorn. The wound led to an illness from which he would not recover.

Matilda had died in 1083, and when William died on September 9, 1087, he was alone. He had exiled Robert, his eldest son, for his rebellion. William Rufus, his second son and designated heir, was also away, protecting the throne against any challenges from others. (As William II, he would reign from 1087 to 1100.) Finally, William's last surviving son, Henry, destined to reign as Henry I (ruled 1100–35), was busy supervising the collection of his inheritance money.

The aftermath of William's death was as pathetic as the circumstances surrounding it. His body had become so bloated that the pallbearers had a hard time fitting it into the tomb, and in the struggle to wedge it in, the corpse burst open. The smell of William's decomposing body filled the church, an inglorious end to an otherwise glorious career.

For More Information


Finn, R. Welldon. An Introduction to Domesday Book. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Gormley, Kathleen and Richard Neill. The Norman Impact on the Medieval World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Green, Robert. William the Conqueror. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Martell, Hazel Mary. The Normans. New York: New Discovery Books, 1992.

May, Robin. William the Conqueror and the Normans. Illustrations by Gerry Wood. New York: Bookwright Press, 1985.

Rickard, Graham. Norman Castles. Illustrations by Michael Bragg. New York: Bookwright Press, 1990.

Web Sites

"HWC, William the Conqueror." [Online] Available http://history.idbsu.edu/westciv/willconq/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"The Terrible Death of William the Conqueror." Suite 101.com. [Online] Available http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/british_royal_history/15546 (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"William I." The British Monarchy. [Online] Available http://www.royal.gov.uk/history/william1.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"William the Conqueror." [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Athens/4818/William.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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