William I (William the Conqueror)

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William I (William the Conqueror)

CIRCA 1028–1087
Duke of Normandy and King of England


Establishing Authority. William I (William the Conqueror or William the Bastard) was the son of Robert I, duke of Normandy, and his concubine Herleva, a peasant girl. This illegitimacy did not, however, keep him from becoming one of the most important military and political leaders of the Middle Ages. As a youth he developed an intelligence and shrewdness that served him well as an adult. Succeeding his father as duke in 1035, William I began to put down rebel elements of the duchy who questioned his right to rule, a process not completed until 1060, when he defeated a combined army sent against him by King Henry I of France and Count Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. He then conquered the county of Maine in 1063.

Across the Channel. When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, William I made a hereditary claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne (Edward’s mother was a Norman) and invaded the island kingdom. He won a brilliant victory at Hastings that same year and on Christmas Day he was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey. Nonetheless, opposition to his rule was not effectively crushed for another twenty years. In fact, the intermittent civil strife gave William I a distaste for his newly acquired kingdom, and he decided to rule it from Normandy.

Maintaining Control. William I organized his new territory across the Channel carefully: he established a strong monarchy by making every landholder a direct vassal of the Crown and not some territorial prince; he allowed the Anglo-Saxons to keep most of their own statutes and courts; and he preserved the quasi-democratic tradition of “parleying” (the frequent holding of conferences between the king and the nobles). Between 1085 and 1086 William I commissioned a county-by-county assessment of his English realm. This detailed census became known as the Domesday Book (from the Old English word dome, meaning “reckoning”) for its thoroughness and finality.

Continental Threats. Meanwhile, political intrigue on the Continent mounted as William Fs enemies there (Philip I of France and Canute IV of Denmark) became more powerful and threatened the frontiers of Normandy, primarily Maine and the Vexin on the Seine. In 1077 Philip I seized three key towns in the eastern part of the Vexin—Chaumont, Mantes, and Pontoise. Ten years later when William I entered Mantes by surprise, he suffered a severe injury while the town burned. He lingered for five weeks, during which time he divided his territorial possessions among his two oldest sons: Robert Curthose received Normandy and Maine while William Rufus took control of England. William I died on 9 September 1087.


Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England, 1042–1216 (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1955).

Barlow, William I and the Norman Conquest (London: English Universities Press, 1965).

David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964).

C. Warren Hollister, ed., The Impact of the Norman Conquest (New York: Wiley, 1969).

David Armine Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest (London: Collins, 1977).

Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Norman Conquest: Its Setting and Impact (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966).

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William I (William the Conqueror)

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