William the Conqueror was a Norman King, who successfully invaded England in 1066. He established Norman rule in England, having a large impact on English life and history. The invasion created a close link between the fortunes of France and England. All English kings can trace their lineage to William the Conqueror.
William the Conqueror was a descendent of a famous Viking Rollo, who was the first Viking to rule Normandy – a part of France from 918 AD.
William was born in 1028 in Falaise, the Duchy of Normandy. His father was Robert I, Duke of Normandy, but he was born out of marriage to Robert’s mistress – Herleva. This illegitimate birth diminished William’s prestige and entitlement to the throne. His political enemies often referred to him as William the Bastard. His ascendency to the head of the Norman kingdom was not guaranteed as Norman Lords fought amongst themselves for the right to rule the kingdom.
In 1047, aged 19, he had to lead a fight against a rebellion in his Duchy. In the 1950s, he married Matilda of Flanders, which gave him a powerful ally in the neighbouring country of Flanders. By 1060, William had consolidated his power and was the undisputed leader of Normandy.
In England, the king was Edward the Confessor, but without any children of his own, the succession was not clear. William was one potential contender, but it was fairly weak as he was a first cousin once removed to Kind Edward. However, Edward was promised the throne by a powerful English earl Harold Godwinson. But, on his deathbed, Edward the Confessor named Harold as his successor and Harold took the English crown.
William felt aggrieved that Harold had broken his promise and sought to raise an invasion fleet to claim the English crown. William spent time building an invasion fleet and waited for the right moment to cross the channel. Bad weather in the summer of 1066, forced the invasion to be delayed for several weeks. Just before William crossed, a Viking army including his own brother Tostig invaded in the north of England, causing Harold to take his army north to face the Viking army. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold was successful in defeating the Vikings, but as soon as the battle was over, Harold received news of Williams invasion in the south. Buoyed by the confidence of defeating the Viking army, Harold forced march his army to the south coast. Without giving his army time to recover, he met William’s army at the Battle of Hasting on 14 October 1066.
The numbers were fairly even, but the Normans had a greater number of archers and cavalry. Harold had successfully adopted tactics of the Vikings and used a shield wall effectively in the first Norman attack. However, the Normans then appeared to flee from the battle – either because they feared defeat or more likely – felt it was a good tactic to break up the shield wall. The English took the bait and pursued the Normans. With the discipline of the shield wall broken, the Normans turned, and the battle started to swing in favour of the Normans. Towards the end of the day, Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow. He died shortly after. This led to the English army to retreat – there was no longer anyone of sufficient stature to defeat them.
Despite minor skirmishes and rebellions, William faced no real opposition, and he was able to march to London, where he was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. He established a monastery on the site of the Battle of Hastings. He spent a year determining the governance of England before returning to Normandy the following year.
Norman rule transformed England. The Anglo-Saxon lords had their land confiscated and given to the Normans, who established a more advanced feudal system. The Normans also introduced French words into the Anglo-Saxon language, giving an English a greater diversity of sources than the previous language which was primarily Teutonic. The Normans were excellent administrators – efficient and organised. This helped English governance become strong and stable. The Normans built many castles to secure England. This includes the Tower of London. In 1086, William ordered a detailed census of land, people and property. It was known as the Domesday Book and is a major source of information about the time.
Back in Normandy, William faced greater difficulties. His eldest son Roberts was rebellious and allying himself with French kings. William travelled between England and Normandy on at least 19 occasions, depending on where there was the greatest unrest. He did not attempt to unite the two kingdoms but they kept separate laws and customs.
In 1087, William was taken ill while attempting to seize Mantes a city to the west of Paris. After two months, he died on 9 September 1087. He left Normandy to his son Robert and England to his younger son, also named William. To his youngest son, Henry, he left money. He was buried in Abbaye-aux-Hommes.
After his death, there followed a civil war between Robert and William, which led to diminished Norman influence in northern France. The biggest influence of William’s life was on England. England gained a much closer connection to France and lost the link to Scandinavian kings.
William had at least nine children with his wife Matilda of Flanders.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of William the Conqueror”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net Published 24 June 2019.
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