William the Conqueror - First Norman King of England Documentary
The man known to history as William the Conqueror was born at Falaise in the Normandy region of northern France, in either 1027 or 1028. The De Obitu Willelmi, meaning ‘On the Death of William’, which was written in the late eleventh century to commemorate William’s death in 1087, stated that he was 59 years of age when he died. If this is accurate William must have been born sometime between the 10th of September 1027 and the 9th of September 1028.
Like many other noblemen of the High Middle Ages William’s family did not use a surname and since his byname of ‘the Conqueror’ was one which he acquired much later, we should consider him for the first forty years of his life as simply William of Normandy. His father was Robert of Normandy who in 1027, at around the time of William’s birth, had ascended to the position of Duke of Normandy, ruler of the large duchy of Normandy in northwest France which dominated the valley of the River Seine as it flowed outwards from Paris into the English Channel. His mother was a woman named Herleva whose precise background is unclear.
One story has it that she was a servant of the ducal household at Falaise, others that she was the daughter of a tradesman from the town. One of William’s recent biographers has suggested she was a daughter of one of the senior ministers of the dukes of Normandy. Yet although Herleva’s background is uncertain, there is no doubt that her liaison with Robert of Normandy was not within the confines of marriage or recognised by the church. Accordingly William was not a legitimate child and although he would succeed his father he was nevertheless regularly referred to throughout his life as bastardus, or the bastard, in reference to his illegitimacy. The duchy of Normandy into which William was born and which he would soon rule was a relatively new dukedom or territory in France.
Its origins lay in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. William’s great, great, great grandfather was Hrólfr Ragnvaldsson, a Viking who in the late ninth century led a large Viking contingent which launched several raids into the north of the kingdom of the Franks in what is now France, however, unlike many other Viking war parties which simply raided regions and moved on, by the 870s Hrólfr and his Viking followers had settled in the Lower Seine river valley from where they could exact money from Paris and farm the rich farmland of the Normandy region. This situation lasted until the early tenth century, when eventually the French king, Charles III, in 911 decided to accommodate Hrólfr as one of his own subjects, rather than continue to be harassed by these Viking warriors. Thus, in 911 Hrólfr became the first Count of Normandy and he changed his name to that which he is most commonly known by today. He called himself Rollo, and in time his ancestors would adopt the title of dukes of Normandy. He was also baptised, beginning the process whereby these Norse settlers in northern France converted to Christianity in the course of the tenth century.
Thus, William was born into a Norse family, but one which had rapidly Gallicised. For instance, they adopted the languages and culture of their new homeland, speaking French and Latin and employing laws which were partially Germanic and partially acquired from the civil law of the Romans as it was passed down to the Frankish kingdom, however, they brought some of their own culture to the region as well. Consequently this was soon understood to be a unique culture which was present in northwest France, one which would have an enormous impact on Europe during the High Middle Ages. The people here were called the Normans and their culture was Norman culture. The word comes from the term for Normandy, the land they inhabited, which effectively means ‘The Land of the North Men’ in recognition of the Normans’ origins in Scandinavia.
William’s childhood is relatively shadowy compared with our extensive knowledge of his later life, he evidently received some sort of literary education, but the details are unclear other than a nugget of information which reveals that a mysterious ‘Ralph the Monk’ was involved. By the time he was just seven or eight years old the duke’s young son was already being included in ceremonial events concerning the feudal governance of Normandy. For instance, when some of Robert’s feudal lords paid homage to him William was present at these ceremonies in recognition of the fact that their fealty would pass to him one day when Robert died and William succeeded him. One had to grow up fast as a potential lord in eleventh-century Europe. Easily the most traumatic and momentous event in William’s young life occurred in 1035 when he was either seven or eight years old.
The boy would have been aware even at this young age of his father’s prolonged absence from Falaise, in 1034 he had undertaken a pilgrimage to visit Jerusalem in the Holy Land, however on the way home he fell ill and died at Nicaea in north-western Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, on the 2nd of July 1035. When news of his death reached Normandy the young William, as Robert’s only son, though illegitimate, was now proclaimed duke of Normandy. Rumours which emerged at the time that Duke Robert had been poisoned in Anatolia are almost certainly spurious and his sudden illness and death could have been owing to any wide range of maladies which were barely understood at the time.
William’s reign during his minority was chaotic. Already during Robert’s reign there had been a number of overly powerful lords exercising too much independence from the ducal court at Falaise and with an eight year old boy now the duke of Normandy, these tendencies only became greater. Consequently William’s guardians spent much of the 1030s and early 1040s trying to re-establish ducal authority. The situation even declined to the extent that William had to be moved around the Normandy region for his safe keeping.
Despite these early challenges, William was able to assume the rule of Normandy in his own right upon turning fifteen, most likely in 1042. It is from this date that major chroniclers of William’s life such as William of Jumiéges and William of Poitiers began to describe him as being at the centre of events occurring in Normandy. For instance, William’s first active military success is described as being the capture of Falaise from a recalcitrant local lord named Thurstan Goz. This occurred early in 1043 when William was probably fifteen years of age. Thereafter in the years ahead he succeeded in re-establishing ducal authority throughout northwest France, aided to a great extent by the king of France, Henri I. The most significant moment in this stabilising of his rule in Normandy came in the early summer of 1047 when William was on the cusp of entering his twenties.
At this time he managed to see off a serious challenge to his legitimacy when his cousin, Guy of Brionne, claimed the duchy for himself. William eventually defeated Guy at the Battle of Val-és-Dunes near Caen in Normandy, following which he imposed a ‘Truce of God’ on the other Norman nobles, a medieval concept which was at its height in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and which called for Christian lords to swear vows of peace towards one another. Following this William cemented his control of the region by appointing his half-brother Odo as bishop of Bayeux in 1049, a major position in western Normandy.
Throughout their accounts of these events of the 1040s, William’s biographers and chroniclers, typically monks and other religious figures writing in his own day or shortly afterwards in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, were at pains to suggest that the young duke was a major driving force in the reform of the duchy and the consolidation of power in his own hands in the 1040s. However, whether these accounts were exaggerated later or not is open to some dispute. It is also from the period of the late 1040s and into the 1050s that we first hear regular mention in contemporary histories of figures such as William FitzOsbern and Roger de Montgomery as acting as William’s advisors, these men would advise William for many years to come and their appearance in the historical record at this time, gives the impression that a stable and coherent government had been formed in the late 1040s. Several of these individuals would also be William’s closest confidantes and commanders when it came to his famous invasion of England many years later. Thus, by mid-century, William had strengthened his control over Normandy and ended the instability which had characterised the region since the early 1030s. Having done so, William’s thoughts turned towards securing his line.
In 1050 he married Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders in what is now southern Belgium. Baldwin was one of the most powerful rulers in northern Europe at the time and the marriage was a major diplomatic coup for William. In time the union would result in four sons, Robert, Richard, William and Henry, and five daughters, Adelida, Cecilia, Matilda, Constance and Adela. Two of these sons would sit on the throne of England in time to come.
William’s career subsequent to 1050 and the events which have made him one of the major figures in English history must be assessed in light of developments in England as far back as the 1010s. In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark and ruler of the Danes, a Norse people who had been raiding Britain extensively since the 980s, conquered England and usurped the throne from King Æthelred, the head of the Wessex line of kings. Although Æthelred quickly fought back and resumed the kingship in 1014, he died in 1016, making his son, Edmund Ironside, the new king.
However, Edmund was now cast into a new war with the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut, by the end of 1016. Cnut had managed to seize control of much of England from Edmund and when the Wessex king died in November, Cnut proclaimed himself king of all England, a powerful ruler who now reigned over a North Atlantic empire stretching from England, east to Denmark and north into Norway. He would rule until 1035 and was remembered as Cnut the Great. Despite Cnut’s ascendancy, the Wessex line was not wholly defeated.
In 1016 Æthelred’s other son and Edmund Ironside’s brother, Edward, fled with the rest of the family across the English Channel. They found refuge at the court of the dukes of Normandy where they acted as kings of England in exile and were afforded many honours by William’s grandfather and father in the 1020s and 1030s. Then in the early 1040s, just as William was entering his early manhood and preparing to rule in his own right, the situation changed again in England.
Cnut was succeeded in 1035 by his son, Harold Harefoot, who subsequently died in 1040, only to be succeeded by another son of Cnut’s, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was a young man without an heir who was also suffering from some unspecified illness, possibly tuberculosis, accordingly in 1041 he made preparations for the succession should he die. His dispensation for England was that Edward, now known by the byname ‘the Confessor’ owing to his religious piety, should return from Normandy and succeed him as King of England, should he die without producing an heir.
This subsequently occurred the following year. Thus, the Wessex line of kings was restored in England in 1042. Edward did not quickly forget the support he had received from the dukes of Normandy and the honours they had been afforded in northern France throughout his and his family’s long exile in the quarter of a century after 1016. Although there is a substantial controversy over these events, it is very possible that in 1051, when a crisis arose in England between Edward and the powerful Anglo-Danish House of Godwin, the king promised William of Normandy that he would succeed him as King of England following his death, Edward being without a legitimate heir and largely leading a celibate life. There is substantial reason to believe that this promise was actually made in 1051.
Many of our most important sources for William’s life attest to it. For instance, the Gesta Willelmi or Deeds of William written by William of Poitiers around 1066 and the Gesta Normannorum Ducum or Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans compiled by William of Jumiéges around 1070, both include this version of events, however these could be dismissed as having been written after William had made his claim to the throne of England and conquered the country and as such might be deemed politically biased. But there is also evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a long history of England in the Middle Ages, which pre-dates William becoming king. Recent studies have proven that the relevant sections of the chronicle detailing Edward’s promise to William, were written in the 1050s or early 1060s before William became king of England.
Consequently the author would have had no political reason to include this version of events if it was not true. There is then every reason to believe that Edward did in fact make William his heir in 1051 and that the Norman duke’s claim to the throne of England was authentic and strong as a result. Whatever the truth of these matters, their material significance for William would not become a concern for another fifteen years as Edward lived well into the 1060s. In the interim William faced further challenges at home in Normandy. Despite his earlier alliance with Henri I of France, William clashed with the French monarch on several occasions in the 1050s, a result of the splintered and decentralised power arrangement which predominated in France throughout the eleventh century.
Several invasions of Normandy were undertaken by Henri, between 1053 and 1057, but when William won a substantial victory against the king and his allies at the Battle of Varaville in August 1057, the tide was turned. William now went on the offensive against Henri and when both the king and his foremost ally, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, died in 1060, William was able to impose his power throughout northern France. In 1063 he even managed to bring the entire county of Maine, a substantial French province to the south of Normandy, under Norman rule.
This brought extensive additional resources under William’s control which would aid greatly in his invasion of England a few years later. One of William’s most significant building projects also dates to this time. In 1062 he and Matilda began their patronage of the construction of a new church and nunnery in the town of Caen in Normandy. The complex was originally intended to consist of two main buildings, the Abbaye aux Dames or Women’s Abbey, intended for a group of Benedictine nuns, and the Abbaye aux Hommes or Men’s Abbey, devised as a monk’s abbey. Eventually the wider complex would become known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité and stood throughout the late medieval and early modern periods as one of the most impressive religious establishments in northern France. However, it was not fully completed until 1130, long after both William and Matilda had died, an indication of the sheer ambition of the project.
When completed it consisted of a main church built in the Gothic style, with transepts spreading out from the back thereof into the abbeys for the nuns and monks. These transepts were built in the early medieval Romanesque architectural style and so the church and abbeys at Caen which William patronised are a melding of the main architectural style of both the Early and High Middle Ages, a statement of a world which like the Duchy of Normandy stood at the end of one period of Europe’s history and the beginning of another. Having secured the southern border of Normandy, William turned his attention west in 1064 towards the Celtic duchy of Brittany and its ruler, Conan II.
This resulted in the Breton-Norman War which would last until 1066, eventually ending in something of a stalemate, but it is curious for having involved Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex in England and the head of the powerful House of Godwin. Harold had most likely been sent to France to reaffirm King Edward’s earlier offer to William to succeed him as England’s ruler. At this time William made Harold swear an oath that he would accept his succession. This latter event is vividly depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, a seventy metre long cloth tapestry produced in the 1070s and which still survives today. It depicts the events leading up to William’s claim to the English throne and his subsequent invasion of England in 1066. Housed today in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in the town of Bayeux in Normandy in northern France, it is a remarkable survival and a striking record of William’s ascent to the kingship of England, or at least how he wished people to understand how he had risen to the kingship.
The meeting of William and Harold in northern France in the mid-1060s was to take on a striking significance in early 1066, King Edward the Confessor, by now in his sixties, fell into a coma late in 1065, he never fully recovered and he died on the 5th of January 1066 in London. He still had no clear heir and Edward’s lack of clarity and indecision over the succession now opened a window of opportunity for Harold. The following day, on the 6th of January, the Anglo-Saxon Witan, the assembly of Anglo-Saxon and Danish lords and members of the ruling class of England, met and proclaimed Harold as the new king of England. The stage was now set for a major showdown with William. Within weeks, plans were underway in Normandy for William to enforce his claim as Edward’s successor, indeed it is almost certain that William had been preparing politically and militarily for Edward’s death throughout the 1060s. Hundreds of warships and transport boats were now gathered or placed under construction in the ports of northern France and William reached out to his recently acquired subjects and allies from across northern France to aid him in his invasion.
A debate has arisen in recent years as to how William actually prepared his invasion force. This was, by some standards, the largest amphibious invasion and action undertaken anywhere in Western Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. But the Romans were the dominant power of the known world at the time and capable of massive logistical operations, whereas William was the duke of a minor principality in northern France by comparison.
How then, many medievalists and historians have wondered, did William prepare such an invasion force and transport it across the English Channel in such a short period of time? What historians of this subject increasingly believe is that the Norman Invasion of 1066 was only made possible by the diffusion of new technologies to northern France from other parts of Europe in the course of the eleventh century. For instance, William’s army would have involved upwards of 3,000 war horses. Studies have concluded that the kind of longships and galleys used in the North Atlantic during the Early Middle Ages simply could not have carried these across the English Channel in anywhere near the necessary amount of time for him to have carried out his campaign in 1066. Instead, William was relying on a specific type of ship for transporting horses, the design of which had reached Normandy from the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first half of the eleventh century. Thus, from a logistical point of view, the Norman Invasion of 1066 and William’s expedition was only possible because of the changing nature of medieval Europe in the eleventh century and the increasing diffusion of knowledge and technologies around the continent. William was not the only claimant to the throne.
Harold also faced a challenge from his own brother, the earl of Northumberland, Tostig. As the earl of a large domain in northern England and a member of the powerful House of Godwin, Tostig had his own considerable support to claim the throne. He had already been implicated in a rebellion in the north in 1065, prior to Edward’s last illness and death. Now in 1066 he clashed directly with Harold who banished him from England. Tostig spent the spring and summer months scheming with various foreign powers in the world of the North Atlantic. He took refuge with his brother-in-law, the Count of Flanders, Baldwin V, who gave him financial and military support to raid southern England in the summer.
Tostig even considered allying with William, but eventually he looked further east to Norway, and at some point in the summer of 1066, he made contact with King Harald Hardrada of Norway and convinced the Norse monarch to lay his own claim to the English throne. Harald Hardrada received Tostig’s petition favourably. He quickly prepared an invasion force of approximately 10,000 men and 300 ships which landed in northern England in the early autumn. Initially Hardrada and Tostig made good progress, a substantial victory was won against some regional forces outside the town of York at Fulford on the 20th of September 1066, but in the days that followed, Harold arrived to the north himself with his armies.
The forces of the English King Harold and the Norwegian King Harald finally met at the village of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on the 25th of September 1066, The result was a stunning victory for the English Harold. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed in the engagement and thousands of the Norwegians were killed or badly wounded. Such was the scale of the defeat, that of the 300 ships which had conveyed the Norse army to England, only two to three dozen were needed to bring what was left of the army back to Norway. Harold had seen off the first major threat to his rule, but the greater one waited to the south and the distraction created by the northern invasion of Hardrada was not insignificant in the campaign which followed. Having spent the summer rallying his allies and supporters in France, William’s invasion force of perhaps somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 men crossed the English Channel on the night of the 27th of September, making their full landing near Pevensey in East Sussex on the morning of the 28th.
The date is significant, as Harold had been making preparations in the south throughout the summer and early autumn against William’s landing, but the invasion by Hardrada and Tostig in the north had drawn his forces away, allowing for a smoother landing in the south. Thus, the stage was set for the final showdown between Harold and William. Having disembarked, William moved his forces to the nearby town of Hastings in late September and early October, and in the process his forces devastated the surrounding Sussex countryside, requisitioning food supplies for the army and also as a form of psychological warfare. No sooner had he defeated Hardrada in the north, than Harold had to quickly make his way south to see off the second invasion. On the other hand, William did not advance north towards London and Harold’s forces.
He was content to wait and allow Harold to come to him in Sussex. His reasons were two-fold: first, he had established a strong base of operations at Hastings with good supplies collected from the surrounding region; secondly, he did not wish to sever his lines of communication with his fleet by advancing inland. Clearly William was preparing for the possibility of an unsuccessful military engagement against Harold and the eventuality that he might have to make a hasty retreat back across the Channel to Normandy.
By the 13th of October Harold had advanced south to near William’s position at Hastings. When William received word of the king’s arrival in East Sussex and his encampment to the northeast of the town, he prepared his troops and marched out from Hastings at shortly after dawn on the morning of the 14th. The ensuing battle, one of the most critical in English history, has become known as the Battle of Hastings, but it did not actually take place in or next to the town of Hastings itself, rather the clash occurred roughly eleven kilometres to the northwest of the town near a steep ridge in the Sussex countryside. The area is now the site of the village of Battle, named in honour of the conflict which occurred there nearly a millennium ago.
The exact specifics of how the battle played out are a matter of some dispute, not least because contemporary histories and accounts tended to greatly distort events for political reasons in its aftermath. For instance, the number of troops involved are usually exaggerated to a great extent. Nevertheless, historians today are agreed on the general facts of the battle, William brought at least 7,000 men with him out of Hastings and perhaps as many as 10,000, a large proportion being Norman heavy cavalry, the elite warriors of eleventh-century Europe. Harold had a similar number, but these were tired after the month of exertion in marching all the way north to Yorkshire and then returning quickly to the south, fighting the Battle of Stamford Bridge along the way.
The battle commenced in the early morning at Battle and lasted all day, a long engagement for the time. Harold’s forces had the advantage of the high ground, having occupied the high ridge at the site, but they were restricted by having the forest of the Weald at their back. Thus, while William’s forces were disadvantaged by having to move uphill they had greater room to move about the battlefield. In the end, three factors won the day, William was able to deploy his archers to pick off Harold’s troops on the ridge.
Secondly, his cavalry were superior to Harold’s. But the most significant factor was William’s generalship. Throughout the day he used a number of feigned or pretend retreats to disrupt the English lines and strike at weak points in Harold’s arrayed men. These attacks eventually reduced considerably the number of Harold’s elite troops, the housecarls, in the English shield wall. These were replaced by auxiliary troops, but eventually the barrage of feigned attacks and strikes at weaker points in the English king’s shield wall proved fatal. It was during one of these feigned retreats late in the day, that Harold himself was struck down and killed.
With the king dead, the Anglo-Saxon and Danish forces allegedly broke. Many fled and others surrendered. Thus, by the time the sun set on the 14th of October 1066 over the field at Battle and near the town of Hastings, Harold Godwinson was dead and William of Normandy was one gigantic step closer to claiming the English throne. Any assessment of the Battle of Hastings does also need to bear in mind the adage that history is written by the victors. Our sources for the battle and indeed much of the wider Norman Conquest of England come almost exclusively from Norman writers who were sympathetic to William and naturally critical of Harold, or from other sources such as the Bayeux Tapestry which were unequivocally pieces of propaganda designed to extoll William’s victory.
For instance, many sources suggest that Harold was killed late in the battle when an arrow hit him in the eye, but others suggest he died early on in the conflict. Whatever the chronology of this, nearly all contend that Harold’s army began to collapse and flee once their king was killed, suggesting a disordered and poorly trained body of troops. But others still, which are less flattering of William, contend that Harold’s forces actually held together quite well even after the king was killed and attempted to flee with his body. Others are vague about the actions of the Normans. For instance, the battle largely concluded with the Normans pursuing some of Harold’s forces to a site known as ‘Malfosse’ or ‘The Evil Ditch’. Exactly where this is and what happened here is unclear, but it is probable that the Normans massacred some of the remnants of Harold’s fleeing army at this site, an act remembered in the name of the place in local lore.
From a military perspective, Hastings was not just the critical battle in the war for the throne of England in 1066, it also reflected the changing order in the North Atlantic world, as for nearly three-hundred years the world of Scandinavia, Britain, northern France and the Low Countries had been dominated by the military power of the Viking people, who burst out of Europe in the late eighth century, with their longboats and infantry warriors. Hastings marked the triumph of Franco-Norman fighting tactics, with its mixed infantry and cavalry, over the Anglo-Saxon and Danish troops which had long dominated the North Atlantic world. In the aftermath of the battle William did not immediately assume the English crown.
This was complicated by the creation of a new king by the lords of the Witan in London. The man chosen was Edgar Ætheling, a grand-nephew of King Edward the Confessor and the grandson of King Edmund Ironside who had briefly ruled England fifty years earlier in 1016. When news of Harold’s defeat and death at Hastings reached London in the days that followed a decision was taken to proclaim Edgar, a boy of perhaps thirteen years of age at the time, as the king.
Edgar’s reign would be one of the shortest in English history. In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, William proceeded cautiously, securing the towns of Dover, Canterbury and Winchester before making any attempt to seize London. By this means he secured the south and the midlands and isolated the supporters of the puppet king in the capital.
Just weeks later, as William’s armies advanced towards London, the supporters of the young king made the decision not to continue the charade of pretending William could be resisted. The boy king and his supporters met with William not far from the capital in early December. Here an agreement was reached which allowed Edgar to abdicate peacefully. This action, and the seizure of London, completed the initial Norman Conquest.
William of Normandy was crowned as King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. The ceremony was presided over by Aldred, the archbishop of York, who performed it in English, before Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, a diocese in Normandy, translated Aldred’s words into French, in a ceremony which indicated how a foreign people had effectively conquered England. In an ominous sign of the bloodshed which would mark much of William’s reign as ruler of England, some of William’s soldiers stationed outside the abbey believed William had been assassinated when they heard what were actually shouts of acclamation from within.
In a panic they began setting fire to some of the houses around Westminster. It is after this rather chaotic coronation ceremony that William ceases to be known as William of Normandy, and instead becomes William I, or as he is more commonly known to history, William the Conqueror. It would be incorrect to suggest that the shift which occurred in England in 1066 was limited to a few set-piece battles and a change of ruler, after which, things settled down again quite quickly. England had been conquered by a foreign power, one which brought with it, new ways of governing, laws, cultural mores and even a different language.
As we will see, over the next twenty years of his life, William and his Norman followers would transform England from a hybrid Anglo-Saxon and Danish land, into a new Anglo-Norman kingdom. As one of the great historians of Medieval England, Richard Southern, once noted “no country in Europe, between the rise of the barbarian kingdoms, in the fifth century, and the 20th century, has undergone so radical a change in so short a time, as England experienced after 1066”. Some of these changes were immediate. The changing order saw thousands of Anglo-Saxons and Danes who had been strong supporters of the House of Wessex or the Danish lords flee England, either for Denmark, Norway, Scotland or even neighbouring Ireland.
Many would attempt to organise new invasions to restore the old rule of the Anglo-Saxons and Danes, but most would never return. In their place, William brought in thousands of Norman settlers from France, perhaps as many as 20,000. These medieval colonists did not enormously dilute the existing population, which is believed to have been somewhere around two and half million people in England by the mid-eleventh century, but they did place a strong body of Normans in positions of power in many of the towns and villages up and down eleventh-century England. Over time, these newcomers transformed English society. The most obvious and enduring sign of this was the introduction of the language of the conquerors, Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French with some traces of Norse in it, reflecting the Viking heritage of the Normans. Over time much of the diction of Anglo-Norman was absorbed into English, thus fundamentally altering the language spoken in England into a hybrid of Germanic and Romance languages.
This process would take centuries to fully occur however, and for the remainder of William’s reign the conquering class spoke a version of French and the bulk of the population still spoke Old English. Thus, bilingualism would have become necessary for many working in government or as traders in London and other towns from the late 1060s onwards. Along with this lingual change, shifts in the functioning of government and the law also occurred.
Law French became the language of the courts, a position it would hold legally until the eighteenth century. Moreover the court system became more centralised under Norman rule, a move which helped in the development of the Common Law in the two centuries that followed. A truly positive development which followed from the Norman Conquest was the gradual phasing out of slavery as a major feature of society in England. Already by the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066 slavery was a far less common practice within Norman society than it was in England and Britain. The Domesday Book which, as we will see, was compiled in the mid-1080s, twenty years after the Norman Conquest, indicated that there were some 28,000 slaves officially listed in England.
While such figures were doubtlessly inaccurate to some extent, given the issues in precise record-keeping during the eleventh century, this was clearly a significant drop on the number of slaves which had been present in the country prior to 1066, suggesting William and his followers had manumitted or freed many slaves following the conquest. This process continued thereafter. Slavery was not banned in England, nor indeed was it in most of Europe until the nineteenth century, but it was gradually phased out.
By the twelfth century the number of slaves in England had decline by as much as 30% on what it had been prior to 1066 and this process continued during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By the Late Middle Ages slavery was considered something in England, as elsewhere in Europe, which could not be imposed on fellow Christians. Another very substantial change which William brought about, was his reform of the English church. At the time of the conquest, the church in England was very loosely organised.
William tied it much more closely together and appointed several followers to senior positions in order to impose uniformity. Lanfranc, a celebrate Benedictine monk, was made archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, the same year that William’s chaplain, William of Bayeux was made archbishop of York. Between them the pair oversaw the creation of a centralised Anglican church which strove to maintain its independence from the Papacy in Rome on many matters, an independent streak of Anglicanism, which foreshadowed many developments in the English church in years to come. But the real heart of the changes wrought throughout England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest lay in the sphere of land ownership. William had many followers who had supported him, not just in his campaign against Harold in 1066, but through several periods when he needed their military and political support in the 1040s and 1050s.
England was now their bounty. We can gain an insight into just how great this land transfer was from the Domesday Book. It comprises a vast survey of landownership in eleventh century England, two decades after the Norman Conquest and was the most extensive account of landownership produced for the country until the nineteenth century. What it reveals is the manner in which William rewarded his French and Norman followers in the aftermath of the conquest, by granting them vast territories throughout the country. Leading lords and followers had enormous estates bestowed on them. These were often huge chunks of land in geographically strategic regions which they were also expected to control in the interest of the Normans, as the conquerors of this foreign land.
For instance, one of William’s strongest supporters, Robert de Beaumont, heir to the title of Count of Meulan in Normandy, had fought with William at Hastings. He was rewarded with over 90 manors in England in the years that followed, strategically centred around Warwickshire and Leicestershire. Thus, this leading companion of William’s was to hold the English midlands for the Norman interest and was given enormous estates in the region with which to do so, in the years ahead.
The new Norman stone castles, which eclipses the wooden motte and baileye fortifications which the Danes and Anglo-Saxons had preferred in England up to that time, would have begun to appear throughout the countryside, as a means of securing Norman rule here if the Anglo-Saxons and Danes should rise up. In recognition of his immense authority in the area, Robert was made the first earl of Leicester later in his life. He was not alone in being placed in a position like this. Another senior companion of William’s in 1066, William de Warrene was granted lands in at least thirteen counties by the 1080s, particularly around Sussex and Surrey.
He was ennobled shortly before his death in 1088 as the first earl of Surrey. William FitzOsbern, the lord of Breteuil in Normandy, was a close companion of William’s who was also related to the Conqueror. He was given a position of prominence in the West Midlands and March region bordering into Wales, particularly the counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire. Here he was given Clifford Castle, Berkeley Castle and Monmouth Castle as imposing symbols of Norman rule, fortifications which he expanded significantly. He was also quickly made earl of Hereford to symbolise his pre-eminent position in the English West Midlands. Through these measures, William and his Norman companions imposed their rule over England in the years following the conquest.
This was not a benign conquest, enormous land transfers of this kind severely uprooted people and turned England upside down. Moreover, the conquest itself in late 1066 caused severe devastation of the countryside of southern England, it was not long before it provoked resistance. In 1067, William had returned to France to oversee his domains there. Unrest began rising as soon as he left for France. When he returned to England later that year, an extensive programme of castle building had already been undertaken by William FitzOsbern to try to impose greater control over the regions beyond London and the Home Counties, and early in 1068, William campaigned into the West Country where Norman rule was being resisted.
It is hard to minimise the role FitzOsbern played in this element of the conquest for his cousin. As well as establishing castles in the West Midlands and the March region where he was appointed as the Conqueror’s primary representative, he initiated the construction of numerous other castles in southern England on the new king’s behalf. These included Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight where a fort had been built by the Romans a millennium earlier and adapted for further uses by the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in later times. FitzOsbern oversaw the construction of a new castle here which would later gain some infamy as being where King Charles I was imprisoned by parliament in 1648 prior to his being put on trial and executed.
FitzOsbern would have emerged as perhaps the single most important figure in England in the 1070s and 1080s had he not eloped to the Low Countries in 1070 in an effort to establish himself as the new Count of Flanders, an ambition which resulted in his death at the Battle of Cassel in February 1071. The late 1060s saw perhaps the greatest threat to the newly established Anglo-Norman kingdom, a major rebellion broke out in Northumberland in 1069, which coalesced around the figure of Edgar Ætheling, the House of Wessex member who had briefly been proclaimed king in London in the winter of 1066, the rebels here were also aided by contingents of Danes from Scandinavia, but all were driven north into Scotland when William campaigned against them in 1069. This was a brutal military action, with William devastating the countryside of northern England. A near contemporary chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, who is generally regarded as an accurate chronicler, who did not sympathise with the Norman conquerors, described William as bringing, quote, “famine and the sword” to northern England in 1069. His description is corroborated by the evidence of the Domesday Book, which showed that land values here in the north of England were still enormously lower in the 1080s than they otherwise should have been, a sign of how much damage William and his followers inflicted on the region to suppress its independence. Further campaigns followed in 1070 in the northwest along the coastline near Chester and the March region bordering Wales, new castles were quickly erected and Norman overlords imposed their will, the last major pockets of resistance here were not finally crushed until 1071.
Thus, we might consider that far from being a short military conquest in 1066, the Norman Conquest was actually a long six year campaign in which England was subjugated by the Normans, through a brutal strategy of military conquest, enforced famine and the replacement of the Anglo-Saxon and Danish aristocracy with a new nobility of Norman knights, ruling the country from their imposing stone castles. The campaign in the north of England, or ‘The Harrying of the North’ as it has become known, was at the apex of the campaign of destruction. Between 1069 and 1071 the countryside around towns and cities like York was effectively laid waste, leading to such extreme famine and migration that it is now understood that tens of thousands of people probably starved to death in northern England at this time, while in some parts of the northern counties the population had declined by as much as 75% even years later, a result of the methods employed by the Normans here during the conquest.
Many people simply fled to Scotland and overseas in the wake of the arrival of the Normans. Thus, the Norman Conquest of England was not a sanguine transfer of power from one ruler to another as a result of a battle in southern England in 1066, but an extremely bloody process which disrupted the lives of people all over England for many years. Hand in hand with this brutal policy of military subjugation, William also implemented a propaganda campaign in the late 1060s and 1070s to justify his invasion of England and the benefits of Norman rule. We have already seen that writers such as William of Poitiers and William of Jumiéges were writing soon after the conquest, in ways which depicted William’s career leading up to 1066, and the actions of that year, in a favourable light.
For instance, William of Jumiéges, who was certainly a Norman monk favourable to the new king and who must have been in his sixties by the time of the Conquest, began working in the late 1060s, while England was still in the process of being pacified by the Normans, on the Gesta Normannorum Ducum, meaning Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans, an extremely favourable account of the dukes of Normandy, particularly William, and his reign since the 1040s. These reverential accounts of William the Conqueror would shape the perception of him in a very positive light for centuries to come. Other efforts were more visual and symbolic. The Pope in Rome, Alexander II, ordered in 1070, that William and his followers should do penance for the sins they had committed in killing many people during the conquest and in the months and years after, William took this as an opportunity to further glorify the conquest.
The ‘penance’ he undertook was to order the construction of an abbey for the religious order of the Benedictines. It was to be built on the battlefield to the northeast of Hastings, where William had effectively won the throne of England in October 1066. The altar of the church within the abbey was apparently placed at the exact location where Harold had fallen during the battle.
Dedicated to St Martin, Battle Abbey was only completed after William’s death, but is a striking example of Norman propaganda in England. The abbey, as it still stands today, is dominated towards the front by two large crenelated towers between the main gatehouse and entryways. Further battlements stretch out from there giving the impression of a defensive structure, although this was meant as a residence of the largest religious order in eleventh-century Europe. Elements of the abbey have either been damaged in the intervening millennium since its construction or were moved for safe keeping at various points such as during the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. One of these is understood to have been a triple light stained glass window depicting St John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of Jesus. The abbey is also believed to have housed the Battle Abbey Roll, a commemorative list of the main companions who accompanied William on his expedition to England in 1066 and who fought at Hastings.
While historians of medieval England generally do believe that the Battle Abbey Roll existed, it has not survived down to the present day and instead William’s decision to commemorate his allies and companions in this way is only known to us second-hand from accounts such as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, written in the late sixteenth century. More famous than Battle Abbey and the Battle Abbey Roll is the Bayeux Tapestry previously mentioned. Its exact origins are not entirely clear, but it is assumed that it was commissioned either by William’s wife, Matilda, or his half-brother, Odo, earl of Kent and bishop of Bayeux.
The latter theory seems the more likely and if so it was very likely that Odo had it commissioned to be placed in the newly built Bayeux Cathedral, when it was consecrated in July 1077. Yet even if Odo did commission it, it is highly unlikely that William was not aware of the project or had not granted it his seal of approval, because as a visual display of the ‘official’ history of the Norman Conquest, standing in Bayeux Cathedral from 1077, the tapestry would have told William’s subjects in Normandy the story he wished them to believe, about how he had come to be the King of England. It consists of 58 individual scenes, many of which are given Latin titles to aid the viewer’s interpretation of what they are seeing. These primarily refer to events which occurred between 1064 and 1066, beginning with Harold’s visit to France and his acknowledgement of William as King Edward’s designated successor. As such the scenes highlight the contested nature of the English kingship in the two years prior to William’s invasion of England and the tapestry concludes with his victory at Hastings.
Throughout it seeks to legitimise the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne in law as a result of the events of the mid-1060s and then to celebrate his military triumph in southern England when he elected to press his claim through force of arms. There is a providential aspect to the narrative employed as well, with one scene featuring Halley’s Comet and showing a future vision of an invasion fleet. The idea here is meant to be that William’s invasion and victory were foretold by the heavens and that the passage of the Comet over England in 1066 was believed to be an omen of the favour William’s cause was held in.
Overall the Bayeux Tapestry is a highly sophisticated piece of political propaganda by the standards of the eleventh century, one which affirmed the just nature of William’s ascent as King of England and the Norman Conquest of Britain. In the aftermath of the final conquest of the country, William made clear his priorities in terms of his domains. They lay in France, and for the remainder of his life, some fifteen years, he would spend approximately four-fifths of all his time in Normandy and elsewhere on the continent, only returning to England for short periods of time. Our natural inclination to think that William would have made England his home in the 1070s, is based on our knowledge of England’s later position as a great world power, but in the world of eleventh-century Europe, the real heart of William’s territories lay in France, closer to the centre of Norman and French culture, which was gradually spreading out to conquer many other parts of Europe, notably much of southern Italy and Sicily. He was also needed in France, as unrest arose there in the mid-1070s and forced him into several years of military campaigning, firstly to resume control of the County of Maine in 1073, following a revolt which had broken out there during his absence in England, and then to campaign against the French, whose power was being restored under the new monarch, Philippe I.
These difficulties in France were not the only ones which William faced in the 1070s. In 1070 the King of Denmark, Sweyn II, despite promises to William that he would withdraw any Danish troops from England and cease to interfere in the region, decided to personally lead an expedition across the North Sea. There he joined with a prominent Anglo-Saxon rebel who had drawn many opponents of the Normans to his cause, Hereward the Wake. Hereward effectively had control over the Isle of Ely in eastern England and part of the Fens region nearby at this time and Sweyn now brought additional troops to bear here.
William was able to buy off the Danish king by paying a substantial Danegeld, the name for a tribute to the Danes from an English king which had been paid intermittently since the ninth century, but the rebellion in the Fens was not so easily suppressed, in part because the marshy terrain of the Fens was unconducive towards the Normans bringing their heavy cavalry to bear against Hereward and his troops. It was only when William arrived to take personal command of the campaign here in 1071 that the stalemate was broken. A pontoon was constructed between the mainland and the Island of Ely which allowed William and his troops to storm to Hereward’s main stronghold here.
Thereafter several of the rebel leaders were either executed or imprisoned, while others were pardoned and effectively bought off with new grants of land to win their loyalty. Hereward may have been amongst the latter, but accounts are conflicting and some have him fleeing into exile in Scotland after the rebellion was broken in 1071. This was not the end of William’s troubles in England. In 1075 a new revolt broke out in the country, though in this instance it was not driven by Anglo-Saxon or Danish lords who were unreconciled to the Norman Conquest, but rather came from amongst William’s Norman subjects themselves.
The origins of this lay in the marriage of Emma FitzOsbern, the daughter of William FitzOsbern, the king’s great companion whom he had made the first earl of Hereford, but who had died in Flanders in 1071, to Ralph de Guader, another prominent Norman lord in England whom the Conqueror had ennobled as the earl of East Anglia in 1069. The king had refused to sanction this marriage, but Emma and Ralph had gone ahead with it in any event while the king was in France in 1075. The real driving force behind this act of disobedience to the crown was, however, not Emma or Ralph, but Emma’s brother, Roger, who had succeeded their father as the second earl of Hereford back in 1071. In the years that followed he had formed ambitions to carve out his own independent principality in England in the absence of the king himself, who had spent most of his time since the Norman Conquest in northern France. Thus, in 1075 he married his sister to the earl of East Anglia with a view to forming an alliance with de Guader and launching a combined revolt against William’s rule in England. The Revolt of the Earls, as it is termed, was soon joined by the earl of Northumberland, Waltheof, an Anglo-Saxon lord of northern England.
The combination of three of the most powerful lords of England in revolt was a major threat to William, but the king benefited from a number of fortuitous events in the first weeks of the rebellion. First Waltheof lost heart quickly and decided to abandon his allies, while the leaders of the English church and the southern nobility rallied to the king’s cause and raised troops to prevent the southern descent of Hereford and East Anglia while William was preparing to return to England. By the time de Guader made his move from Norwich towards Cambridge a large royal army had been gathered to confront him and he fled to Denmark, leaving Emma to oversee the defence of Norwich. Eventually she negotiated terms whereby herself and her new husband were allowed to retire quietly to some lands they held in Brittany in north-western France in return for relinquishing their estates in England.
The earl of Hereford was not so lucky and William had him imprisoned following the crushing of the revolt. He would remain confined for the remainder of the king’s reign. While the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 posed a clear threat to William’s rule in England, albeit one which was easily seen off owing to a number of fortuitous developments, the most pressing issue for William in the 1070s was a family dispute which arose between 1077 and 1080 between William and his eldest son and designated heir, Robert. William had left Robert in charge of Normandy when we had left for England in 1066, and the dispute might well have arisen as a result of disappointed hopes held by Robert, that he would effectively rule the French duchy thereafter, with William living in, and contenting himself, with his new English domains.
The conflict, though settled by 1080, foreshadowed rivalries which were to bedevil the family for years to come. War with Scotland in 1079, brought William back to England for an extended period of time in 1080 and 1081, no doubt the resulting military campaigns throughout Northumberland, served to further destabilise a region which had already suffered greatly under Norman rule. It was also during this time, that he travelled deep into Wales, firstly on pilgrimage to St David’s in the extreme west of the country but also as a means of imposing some sort of overlordship over the Welsh princes there, the first in a longer and intermittent process, whereby English rule was established in Wales during the late middle ages. The final years of William’s reign were in many ways an anti-climax after the heights of achievement seen in the 1060s when the Normans had united so much of Britain and France under the rule of one man. A further conflict arose with Robert in 1084, which led to his exile from the Norman court, he would not return during William’s lifetime. The mid-1080s also saw an emergency arise within England over an expected invasion of the country by a joint force of Danes and Flemish troops under the King of Denmark, Cnut IV, who sought to challenge William for control of the country.
Demonstrating the callousness of the Normans towards their English subjects, the new lords of the country implemented a policy of scorched earth throughout eastern England in preparation for the invasion, the idea being to deprive any army which landed of crops and other supplies to sustain themselves. In the event the invasion never materialised, as Cnut died in Denmark before it ever departed, but the Domesday Book attests to the manner in which east England was devastated by the Normans, who prized the military benefit of doing so, over the damage it did to the communities who lived here. The perception of England as being a country which was militarily occupied by the Normans in the 1070s and 1080s, rather than a nation which had been liberated by the benevolent Duke of Normandy, is further cemented by William’s ongoing building programme in the later part of his reign. Much of this involved continuing the castle construction which had been undertaken in the late 1060s around England, but other elements of which were more pointed in their symbolism.
For instance, in 1078 William initiated the construction of a new military fortress on the edge of the city of London, the beginning of what we now know as the Tower of London. The first building here, which today is known as the White Tower and which is the most iconic part of the Tower, was effectively a military compound built overlooking London and designed to intimidate William’s new subjects. The denizens of the capital had, after all, attempted to crown a new king in the shape of Edgar Ætheling rather than accept William as their monarch after his victory at Hastings in 1066. William’s distrust of Londoners evidently lingered long afterwards.
For centuries to come this was the heart of the security state in England, with ordnance and weapons stored here down to modern times. William was making a statement in erecting such an imposing military complex on the outskirts of London. He was telling his new subjects in the capital of England that if they tried to support a new pretender or aided his enemies in any way he could strike at them swiftly.
The Tower, dominating the skyline of the city and passed which all boats entering and leaving London along the River Thames had to pass, was a statement of military power. There is also a possibility, one which is seldom commented upon in studies of William the Conqueror’s reign, but which is not entirely implausible, that he was considering a military campaign west to Ireland during the latter stages of his reign. Ireland had been a bridge too far for many powers operating from France and Britain in past times.
The Romans, for instance, had never tried to conquer the island, though they were familiar with what they called Hibernia and its geography and politics, while the English crown would not launch a full invasion of the western island for nearly a hundred years after William’s time when Henry II sanctioned an expedition there in the late 1160s. However, there is evidence that William was in contact with some of the primary regional lords and rulers there in the late 1070s and early 1080s, notably the O’Briens of Thomond in Munster in the south of the country. The country was not unified, but divided into dozens of different polities which were often at war with each other. The idea that William was considering a military expedition against this politically divided region in the last years of his life is heighten