William I

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William I (1027/8–87), king of England (1066–87) and duke of Normandy (1035–87), known as ‘the Conqueror’, was born at Falaise in Normandy. His father was Robert the Magnificent, duke of Normandy (1027–35), and his mother was Herleva, a woman about whose origins various theories have been developed, but who was certainly an established partner of the duke. William's succession to the duchy occurred when he was 8 and had the prior agreement of the Norman magnates and of his lord, the king of France. The first years of his rule in Normandy were turbulent and his survival at times precarious. He faced rival claimants from within his own family and his illegitimate birth was sometimes mocked by contemporaries—his other nickname (‘the Bastard’) was used in his own lifetime—but, after defeating Norman rebels in 1047 and 1053–4, he established a formidable control within the duchy which was never thereafter seriously threatened. For reasons which are not entirely clear, his overlord the French king turned against him in the early 1050s and he had to overcome invasions led by Henry I of France and the count of Anjou, Geoffrey Martel, in 1053–4 and 1057. William began to make territorial gains to the south of Normandy in the 1050s and in 1063 acquired the large county of Maine. In 1051 he received a promise of succession to the English kingdom from Edward the Confessor, apparently out of gratitude for the protection which Edward had been given while in exile in Normandy, and in 1066 he defeated Harold Godwineson at the battle of Hastings to make good his claim. William appears initially to have tried to rule conquered England with the support of an aristocracy which was a mixture of natives and Normans, but it is clear in retrospect that there was no trust between the two groups and that the policy was doomed to failure. Six years of often brutal campaigning, which included the notorious ‘harrying of the orth’ in the winter of 1069–70, were needed to complete the subjugation of William's new kingdom. He thereafter relied almost exclusively on his northern French followers, a new aristocracy whose dominance is clearly revealed by Domesday Book. After 1072 he visited England infrequently, usually to deal with crises such as the revolt of the earls in 1075 or the threatened invasion from Denmark in 1085. The last decade of his life was troubled by the revival of enemies in northern France, dissensions within the ruling group of Normans fomented by his eldest son Robert Curthose, and threats of invasion of England from Scandinavia. On his death-bed, he divided his lands between Robert Curthose, who received Normandy, and his second surviving son, William Rufus, who was given England. The reasons for this division are not definitively known; it is probable that years of conflict had made him distrust Robert, whose claims to Normandy were none the less undeniable, and that he was influenced by a long-standing custom whereby territorial provision was often made for the younger sons of the Norman ducal kindred.

William's achievement was based on a powerful personality, which appears to have overawed almost all who came into contact with him, and a strong physique which made him one of the most formidable warriors of his day. A capacity for often excessive cruelty and for leadership in war was combined with an unbending will and a shrewd political mind. His power base in Normandy was constructed around a small inner circle of kinsmen and associates who were ruthlessly advanced at the expense of rivals. Members of this group were also at the centre of Norman rule in England. His wife Matilda, to whom he was faithful in a way which is remarkable among contemporary medieval kings, often acted as his deputy in Normandy when he was in England. He cleverly ensnared Harold Godwineson in a web of perjury, by obliging him to swear the celebrated oath at either Bonneville or Bayeux, and he skilfully used his reputation as a religious reformer to secure the papacy's sponsorship of the war of conquest of 1066 and its co-operation in the reorganization of the English church which followed, in which Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury was a skilled and well-chosen collaborator. Intelligently and probably cynically, he used Edward the Confessor's promise of the succession to construct a framework of legality within which lands could be transferred from the dispossessed English to French newcomers; even if this was a disorderly process exacerbated by the rapacity of many of the conquerors (to which William himself seems at times to have turned a blind eye), the idea of legal continuity created a structure within which royal authority could sometimes operate effectively. He maintained English overlordship over Wales and Scotland. He enjoyed a measure of good fortune, most notably in the deaths in 1060 of his major rivals in France, the French king Henry I and Count Geoffrey Martel, which enabled him to intervene in England without having to be much concerned about possible threats to the duchy. He was also lucky in that Harold Godwineson's victory at the battle of Stamford Bridge over Harold Hardrada removed a contender whom William would otherwise have had to fight and in that Edgar the Atheling was not a credible alternative around whom the English could unite after 1066. William's death was followed by a civil war between his sons over his inheritance, which was not finally resolved until Henry I's reunification of Normandy and England in 1106. This struggle is testimony to the solidity of William's achievements, since his sons were basically fighting to continue them. Almost every aspect of the Norman Conquest is controversial. But there can be no doubt that it was William's formidable abilities which laid the foundations for its success.

David Richard Bates


Bates, D. , William the Conqueror (1989);
Douglas, D. C. , William the Conqueror (1964);
Fleming, R. , Kings and Lords in Conquest England (1991).

William I

views updated May 14 2018

William I

The English king William I (1027/1028-1087), called the Conqueror, subjugated England in 1066 and turned this Saxon-Scandinavian country into one with a French-speaking aristocracy and with social and political arrangements strongly influenced by those of northern France.

William I was the illegitimate son of Robert I the Devil, Duke of Normandy, and Arletta, a tanner's daughter. Before going on pilgrimage in 1034, Robert obtained recognition of William as his successor, but a period of anarchy followed Robert's death in 1035. As he grew up, Duke William gradually established his authority; his victory over a rival at Val-e's-Dunes in 1047 made him master of Normandy. One chronicle relates that in 1051 or 1052 he visited his childless cousin king Edward the Confessor of England, who may have promised him the succession to the English throne.

About 1053 William married a distant relative, Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. She bore him four sons and four daughters, including Robert, Duke of Normandy; King William II; King Henry I; and Adela, Countess of Blois, mother of King Stephen.

William's military ability, ruthlessness, and political skill enabled him to raise the authority of the Duke of Normandy to an entirely new level and at the same time to maintain practical independence of his overlord, the king of France. William completed the conquest of Maine in 1063, and the next year he was recognized as overlord of Brittany.

Norman Conquest of England

In the same year, according to Norman sources, Harold, Earl of Wessex, son of Godwin, chief of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, fell into William's hands and was forced to swear to support William's claim to the English throne. Harold was nonetheless crowned king following the death of Edward on Jan. 6, 1066. William secured for his claim the sanction of the Pope, who was interested in correcting abuses in the English Church; at the same time, he ordered transports to be built and collected an army of adventurers from Normandy and neighboring provinces. William was also in touch with Harold's exiled brother, who with the king of Norway attacked the north of England. Harold defeated these enemies at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 25, 1066, but his absence allowed William to land unopposed in the south three days later. Harold attempted to bar William's advance, but he was defeated and killed in the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066. After a brief campaign William was admitted to London and crowned king on Christmas Day.

In the next four years William and his Norman followers secured their position; after the last serious rising, in Yorkshire in 1069, he "fell upon the English of the North like a raging lion," destroying houses, crops, and livestock so that the area was depopulated and impoverished for many decades. William took over the old royal estates and a large part of the land confiscated from Saxon rebels. He kept for himself nearly a quarter of the income from land in the kingdom. About two-fifths he granted to his more important followers, to be held in return for the service of a fixed number of knights. This feudal method of landholding was common in northern France, but it was rare if not unknown in England before the Conquest.

Government of England

Claiming to be King Edward's rightful heir, William maintained the general validity of Anglo-Saxon law and issued little legislation; the so-called Laws of William (Leis Willelme) were not compiled until the 12th century. William also took over the existing machinery of government, which was in many ways more advanced than that of France. Local government was placed firmly under his control; earl and sheriff were his officers, removable at his will. He made use of an established land tax and a general obligation to military service.

William also controlled the Church. In 1070 he appointed Lanfranc, abbot of St. Stephen's Abbey at Caen, as archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc became William's trusted adviser and agent. The higher English clergy, bishops, and abbots were almost entirely replaced by foreigners. In a series of councils Lanfranc promulgated decrees intended to bring the English Church into line with developments abroad and to reform abuses. Though encouraging reforms, William insisted on his right to control the Church and its relations with the papacy. He controlled the elections of prelates; he would allow no pope to be recognized and no papal letter to be received without his permission; and he would not let bishops issue decrees or excommunicate his officials or tenants-in-chief without his order. About 1076 William rejected the demand of Pope Gregory VII that he should do fealty to the Roman Church for England, and the matter was dropped.

Domesday Book and Death

At Christmas, 1085, William ordered a great survey of England to be carried out, primarily in order to record liability to the land tax, or "geld." The results were summarized in the two great volumes known as the Domesday Book. Six months later, at a great gathering in Salisbury, William demanded oaths of fealty from all the great landowners, whether or not they were tenants-in-chief of the Crown. In this as in the Domesday survey, he was asserting rights as king over subjects, not simply as feudal lord over vassals.

Throughout his life William was involved in almost ceaseless campaigning: against rebels in Normandy and England, enemies in France, and the Welsh and the Scots. The Scottish king was forced to do homage to William in 1072. William died in Rouen, France, on Sept. 9, 1087. He was respected for his political judgment, his interest in Church reform, the regularity of his private life, and his efforts to maintain order. But above all he was feared; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that "he was a very stern and harsh man, so that no one dared do anything contrary to his will."

Further Reading

The standard biography of William I is David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (1964). R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest (1970), treats the invasion in detail, while F. M. Stenton, ed., The Bayeux Tapestry (1947; 2d ed. 1965), offers a vivid contemporary record from the Norman viewpoint. The best general history of the period is Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 3d ed. 1971), which concludes with the death of William. □

William I

views updated May 23 2018

William I ( the Conqueror) (1027–87) King of England (1066–87) and Duke of Normandy (1035–87). Supported initially by Henry I of France, he consolidated his position in Normandy against hostile neighbours. On the death of Edward the Confessor, he claimed the English throne, having allegedly gained the agreement of King Harold II in 1064. William defeated and killed Harold at the Battle of Hastings (1066), and subsequently enforced his rule over the whole kingdom. He rewarded his followers by grants of land, eventually replacing almost the entire feudal ruling class, and intimidated potential rebels by rapid construction of castles. He invaded Scotland (1072) – extracting an oath of loyalty from Malcolm III Canmore – and Wales (1081), although he spent much of his reign in France. William ordered the famous survey known as the Domesday Book (1086).

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William I (the Conqueror)

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