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William I (about 1027 or 1028 – 9 September 1087), better known as William the Conqueror, was Duke of Normandy from AD 1035 and King of England from late 1066 to his death. William is sometimes also referred to as "William II" in relation to his position as the second Duke of Normandy of that name. In particular, before his conquest of England, he was known as "William the Bastard" ( ) because of the illegitimacy of his birth. William was already known as "the Conqueror" prior to 1066, due to his military successes in Brittany.

To press his claim to the English crown, William invaded England in 1066, leading an army of Normans, Bretons, Dutchmen, and Frenchmen to victory over the English forces of King Harold Godwinson (who died in the conflict) at the Battle of Hastingsmarker, and suppressed subsequent English revolts in what has become known as the Norman Conquest.

His reign, which brought Norman-French culture to England, had an impact on the subsequent course of England in the Middle Ages. The details of that impact and the extent of the changes have been debated by scholars for over a century. In addition to the obvious change of ruler, his reign also saw a programme of building and fortification, changes to the English language, a shift in the upper levels of society and the church, and adoption of some aspects of continental church reform.

Early life

William was born in Falaisemarker, Normandy, the illegitimate and only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, who named him as heir to Normandy. His mother, Herleva (a name with several variant versions), who later married and bore two sons to Herluin de Conteville, was the daughter of Fulbert of Falaise. In addition to his two half-brothers, Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, William had a sister, Adelaide of Normandy, another child of Robert. Later in his life, the enemies of William are reported to have called him alternately William the Bastard, and deride him as the son of a tanner, and the residents of besieged Alençonmarker hung animal skins from the city walls to taunt him.

William is believed to have been born in either 1027 or 1028, and more likely in the autumn of the later year. He was born the grandnephew of Queen Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred the Unready and later, wife of King Canute the Great.

William's illegitimacy affected his early life and he was known to contemporaries as 'William the Bastard'. Nevertheless, when his father died, he was recognised as the heir.

Duke of Normandy

By his father's will, William succeeded him as Duke of Normandy at age seven in 1035. Plots by rival Norman noblemen to usurp his place cost William three guardians, though not Count Alan III of Brittany, who was a later guardian. William was supported by King Henry I of France, however. He was knighted by Henry at age 15. By the time William turned 19 he was successfully dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. With the assistance of Henry, William finally secured control of Normandy by defeating rebel Norman barons at Caenmarker in the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047, obtaining the Truce of God, which was backed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Against the wishes of Pope Leo IX, William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 in the chapel at Eumarker, Normandy (Seine-Maritimemarker). At the time, William was about 24 years old and Matilda was 22. William is said to have been a faithful and loving husband, and their marriage produced four sons and six daughters. In repentance for what was a consanguine marriage (they were distant cousins), William donated St-Stephen's church (l'Abbaye-aux-Hommesmarker) and Matilda donated Sainte-Trinité church (Abbaye aux Damesmarker).

Feeling threatened by the increase in Norman power resulting from William's noble marriage, Henry I attempted to invade Normandy twice (1054 and 1057), without success. Already a charismatic leader, William attracted strong support within Normandy, including the loyalty of his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, who played significant roles in his life. Later, he benefited from the weakening of two competing power centers as a result of the deaths of Henry I and of Geoffrey II of Anjou, in 1060. In 1062 William invaded and took control of the county of Maine, which had been a fief of Anjou.

English succession

Upon the death of the childless Edward the Confessor, the English throne was fiercely disputed by three claimants—William; Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessexmarker; and the Viking King Harald III of Norway, known as Harald Hardrada. William had a tenuous blood claim through his great aunt Emma (wife of Ethelred and mother of Edward). William also contended that Edward, who had spent much of his life in exile in Normandy during the Danish occupation of England, had promised him the throne when he visited Edward in London in 1052. Further, William claimed that Harold had pledged allegiance to him in 1064: William had rescued the shipwrecked Harold from the count of Ponthieu, and together they had defeated Conan II, Count of Brittany. On that occasion, William had knighted Harold; he had also, however, deceived Harold by having him swear loyalty to William himself over the concealed bones of a saint.

In January 1066, however, in accordance with Edward's last will and by vote of the Witenagemot, Harold Godwinson was crowned King by Archbishop Aldred.

Norman Invasion

Meanwhile, William submitted his claim to the English throne to Pope Alexander II, who sent him a consecrated banner in support. Then, William organized a council of war at Lillebonnemarker and in January openly began assembling an army in Normandy. Offering promises of English lands and titles, he amassed at Dives-sur-Mermarker a huge invasion fleet, supposedly of 696 ships. This carried an invasion force which included, in addition to troops from William's own territories of Normandy and Maine, large numbers of mercenaries, allies and volunteers from Britanny, north-eastern France and Flanders, together with smaller numbers from other parts of France and from the Norman colonies in southern Italy. In England, Harold assembled a large army on the south coast and a fleet of ships to guard the English Channelmarker.

Fortuitously for William, his crossing was delayed by eight months of unfavourable winds. William managed to keep his army together during the wait, but Harold's was diminished by dwindling supplies and falling morale with the arrival of the harvest season, he disbanded his army on 8 September. Harold also consolidated his ships in London, leaving the English Channelmarker unguarded. Then came the news that the other contender for the throne, Harald III of Norway, allied with Tostig Godwinson, had landed ten miles from Yorkmarker. Harold again raised his army and after a four day forced march defeated Harald and Tostig on 25 September.

William the Conqueror invades England
On 12 September the wind direction turned and William's fleet sailed. A storm blew up and the fleet was forced to take shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Sommemarker and again wait for the wind to change. On 27 September the Norman fleet finally set sail, landing in England at Pevensey Baymarker (Sussex) on 28 September. Thence William moved to Hastingsmarker, a few miles to the east, where he built a prefabricated wooden castle for a base of operations. From there, he ravaged the hinterland and waited for Harold's return from the north.

William chose Hastings as it was at the end of a long peninsula flanked by impassable marshes. The battle was on the isthmus. William at once built a fort at Hastings to guard his rear against potential arrival of Harold's fleet from London. Having landed his army, William was less concerned about desertion and could have waited out the winter storms, raided the surrounding area for horses and started a campaign in the spring. Harold had been reconnoitering the south of England for some time and well appreciated the need to occupy this isthmus at once.

Battle of Hastings

Harold, after defeating his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada in the north, marched his army to meet the invading William in the south. On 13 October, William received news of Harold's march from London. At dawn the next day, William left the castle with his army and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill/Senlac ridge (present-day Battle, East Sussexmarker), about seven miles from Hastingsmarker.

The Battle of Hastings lasted all day. Although the numbers on each side were about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few if any archers. Along the ridge's border, formed as a wall of shields, the English soldiers at first stood so effectively that William's army was thrown back with heavy casualties. William rallied his troops reportedly raising his helmet, as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, to quell rumors of his death. Meanwhile, many of the English had pursued the fleeing Normans on foot, allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly from the rear as his infantry pretended to retreat further. Norman arrows also took their toll, progressively weakening the English wall of shields. At dusk, the English army made their last stand. A final Norman cavalry attack decided the battle irrevocably when it resulted in the death of Harold who, legend says, was killed by an arrow in the eye. Two of his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine Godwinson, were killed as well. By nightfall, the Norman victory was complete and the remaining English soldiers fled in fear.

Battles of the time rarely lasted more than two hours before the weaker side capitulated; that Hastings lasted nine hours indicates the determination of William and Harold. Battles also ended at sundown regardless of who was winning. Harold was killed shortly before sunset and, as he would have received fresh reinforcements before the battle recommenced in the morning, he was assured of victory had he survived William's final cavalry attack.

March to London

English coin of William the Conqueror (1066–1087).
For two weeks, William waited for a formal surrender of the English throne, but the Witenagemot proclaimed the quite young Edgar Ætheling King instead, though without coronation. Thus, William's next target was London, approaching through the important territories of Kentmarker, via Dovermarker and Canterburymarker, inspiring fear in the English. However, at London, William's advance was beaten back at London Bridgemarker, and he decided to march westward and to storm London from the northwest. After receiving continental reinforcements, William crossed the Thames at Wallingfordmarker, and there he forced the surrender of Archbishop Stigand (one of Edgar's lead supporters), in early December. William reached Berkhamstedmarker a few days later where Ætheling relinquished the English crown personally and the exhausted Saxon noblemen of England surrendered definitively. Although William was acclaimed then as English King, he requested a coronation in London. As William I, he was formally crowned on Christmas day 1066, in Westminster Abbeymarker, by Archbishop Aldred. According to some sources, the ceremony was not a peaceful one. Alarmed by some noises coming from the Abbey, the Norman guards stationed outside set fire to the neighbouring houses. A Norman monk later wrote "As the fire spread rapidly, the people in the church were thrown into confusion and crowds of them rushed outside, some to fight the flames, others to take the chance to go looting."

English resistance

Although the south of England submitted quickly to Norman rule, resistance in the north continued for six more years until 1072. During the first two years, King William I suffered many revolts throughout England (Dovermarker, western Merciamarker, Exetermarker) and Wales. Also, in 1068, Harold's illegitimate sons attempted an invasion of the south-western peninsula, but William defeated them.

For William I, the worst crisis came from Northumbriamarker, which had still not submitted to his realm. In 1068, with Edgar Ætheling, both Mercia and Northumbria revolted. William could suppress these, but Edgar fled to Scotland where Malcolm III of Scotland protected him. Furthermore, Malcolm married Edgar's sister Margaret, with much éclat, stressing the English balance of power against William. Under such circumstances, Northumbriamarker rebelled, besieging Yorkmarker. Then, Edgar resorted also to the Danesmarker, who disembarked with a large fleet at Northumbria, claiming the English crown for their King Sweyn II. Scotland joined the rebellion as well. The rebels easily captured Yorkmarker and its castlemarker. However, William could contain them at Lincolnmarker. After dealing with a new wave of revolts at western Mercia, Exetermarker, Dorsetmarker, and Somersetmarker, William defeated his northern foes decisively at the River Airemarker, retrieving York, while the Danish army swore to depart.

William then devastated Northumbria between the Humbermarker and Teesmarker rivers, with what was described as the Harrying of the North. This devastation included setting fire to the vegetation, houses and even tools to work the fields. He also burnt crops, killed livestock and sowed the fields and land with salt, to stunt growth. After this cruel treatment the land did not recover for more than 100 years. The region ended up absolutely deprived, losing its traditional autonomy towards England. However it may have stopped future rebellions, frightening the English into obedience. Then the Danish king disembarked in person, readying his army to restart the war, but William suppressed this threat with a payment of gold. In 1071, William defeated the last rebellion of the north through an improvised pontoon, subduing the Isle of Elymarker, where the Danes had gathered. In 1072, he invaded Scotland, defeating Malcolm, who had recently invaded the north of England. William and Malcolm agreed to a peace by signing the Treaty of Abernethymarker and Malcolm gave up his son Duncan as a hostage for the peace. In 1074, Edgar Ætheling submitted definitively to William.

In 1075, during William's absence, the Revolt of the Earls was confronted successfully by Odo. In 1080, William dispatched his half brothers Odo and Robert to storm Northumbria and Scotland, respectively. Eventually, the Pope protested that the Normans were mistreating the English people. Before quelling the rebellions, William had conciliated with the English church; however, he persecuted it ferociously afterwards.

Reign in England


As would be habit for his descendants, William spent much of his time (11 years, since 1072) in Normandy, ruling the islands through his writs. Nominally still a vassal state, owing its entire loyalty to the French king, Normandy arose suddenly as a powerful region, alarming the other French dukes who reacted by persistently attacking the duchy. William became focused on conquering Brittany, and the French King Philip I admonished him. A treaty was concluded after his aborted invasion of Brittany in 1076, and William betrothed Constance to the Breton Duke Hoel's son, the future Alan IV of Brittany. The wedding occurred only in 1086, after Alan's accession to the throne, and Constance died childless a few years later.

William's elder son Robert, enraged by a prank of his brothers William and Henry, who had doused him with filthy water, undertook what became a large scale rebellion against his father's rule. Only with King Philip's additional military support was William able to confront Robert, who was then based in Flanders. During the battle of 1079, William was unhorsed and wounded by Robert, who lowered his sword only after recognizing him. The embarrassed William returned to Rouen, abandoning the expedition. In 1080, Matilda reconciled both, and William restored Robert's inheritance.

Odo caused trouble for William, too, and was imprisoned in 1082, losing his English estate and all his royal functions, but retaining his religious duties. In 1083, Matilda died, and William became more tyrannical over his realm.


William initiated many major changes. He increased the function of the traditional English shires (autonomous administrative regions), which he brought under central control; he decreased the power of the earls by restricting them to one shire apiece. All administrative functions of his government remained fixed at specific English towns, except the court itself; they would progressively strengthen, and the English institutions became amongst the most sophisticated in Europe. In 1085, in order to ascertain the extent of his new dominions and to improve taxation, William commissioned all his counselors for the compilation of the Domesday Book, which was published in 1086. The book was a survey of England's productive capacity similar to a modern census.

William also ordered many castles, keeps, and mottes, among them the Tower of Londonmarker's foundation (the White Towermarker), to be built throughout England. These ensured effectively that the many rebellions by the English people or his own followers did not succeed.

His conquest also led to French (especially, but not only, the Norman French) replacing English as the language of the ruling classes for nearly 300 years. Furthermore, the original Anglo-Saxon culture of England became mingled with the Norman one; thus the Anglo-Norman culture came into being.

William is said to have eliminated the native aristocracy in as little as four years. Systematically, he despoiled those English aristocrats who either opposed the Normans or who died without issue. Thus, most English estates and titles of nobility were handed to the Norman noblemen. Many English aristocrats fled to Flanders and Scotland; others may have been sold into slavery overseas. Some escaped to join the Byzantine Empire's Varangian Guard, and went on to fight the Normans in Sicily. By 1070, the indigenous nobility had ceased to be an integral part of the English landscape, and by 1086, it maintained control of just 8% of its original land-holdings. However, to the new Norman noblemen, William handed the English parcels of land piecemeal, dispersing these widely, ensuring nobody would try conspiring against him without jeopardizing their own estates within the still unstable post-invasion England. Effectively, this strengthened William's political stand as a monarch.

The medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury says that the king also seized and depopulated many miles of land (36 parishes), turning it into the royal New Forestmarker region to support his enthusiastic enjoyment of hunting.Based on William of Malmesbury's Historia Anglorum.

He was of just stature, ordinary corpulence, fierce countenance; his forehead was bare of hair; of such great strength of arm that it was often a matter of surprise, that no one was able to draw his bow, which himself could bend when his horse was in full gallop; he was majestic whether sitting or standing, although the protuberance of his belly deformed his royal person; of excellent health so that he was never confined with any dangerous disorder, except at the last; so given to the pleasures of the chase, that as I have before said, ejecting the inhabitants, he let a space of many miles grow desolate that, when at liberty from other avocations, he might there pursue his pleasures.

See English Monarch: The House of Normandy.
Modern historians, however, have come to the conclusion that the New Forest depopulation was greatly exaggerated. Most of the lands of the New Forest are poor agricultural lands, and archaeological and geographic studies have shown that the New Forest was likely sparsely settled when it was turned into a royal forest.

Death, burial, and succession

Coin of William I of England.
In 1087 in France, William burned Mantesmarker (50 km west of Paris), besieging the town. However, he fell off his horse, suffering fatal abdominal injuries from the saddle pommel. On his deathbed, William divided his succession for his sons, sparking strife between them. Despite William's reluctance, his combative elder son Robert received the Duchy of Normandy, as Robert II. William Rufus (his third son) was next English king, as William II. William's youngest son Henry received 5,000 silver pound, which would be earmarked to buy land. He also became King Henry I of England after William II died without issue. While on his deathbed, William pardoned many of his political adversaries, including Odo.

William died at age 59 at the Convent of St Gervais in Rouenmarker, capital city of Normandie, France, on 9 September 1087. William was buried in the Abbaye-aux-Hommesmarker, which he had erected, in Caenmarker, Normandy. It is said that Herluin, his step-father, loyally bore his body to his grave.

The original owner of the land on which the church was built claimed he had not been paid yet, demanding 60 shillings, which William's son Henry had to pay on the spot. In a most unregal postmortem, it was found that William's corpulent body would not fit in the stone sarcophagus as his body had bloated due to the warm weather and length of time that had passed since his death. A group of bishops applied pressure on the king's abdomen to force the body downward but the abdominal wall burst and putrefaction drenched the king's coffin "filling the church with a foul smell".William's grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a Latin inscription; the slab dates from the early 19th century. The grave was defiled twice, once during the French Wars of Religion, when his bones were scattered across the town of Caenmarker, and again during the French Revolution. Following those events, only William's left femur, some skin particles and bone dust remain in the tomb.


William's invasion was the last time that England was successfully conquered by a foreign power. Although there would be a number of other attempts over the centuries, the best that could be achieved would be excursions by foreign troops, such as the Raid on the Medway during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, but no actual conquests such as William's. There have however been occasions since that time when foreign rulers have succeeded to the English/British throne, notably the Dutch Stadtholder William III of Orange who in 1688, with his Dutch army, was invited by prominent English politicians to invade England with the intention of deposing the Catholic King James II (see Glorious Revolution) and George of Hanover b. 1660, who acceded by virtue of the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the succession.

As Duke of Normandy and King of England he divided his realm among his sons, but the lands were reunited under his son Henry, and his descendants acquired other territories through marriage or conquest and, at their height, these possessions would be known as the Angevin Empire.

They included many lands in France, such as Normandy and Aquitainemarker, but the question of jurisdiction over these territories would be the cause of much conflict and bitter rivalry between England and France, which took up much of the Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years War and, some might argue, continued as far as the Battle of Waterloomarker of 1815.

An example of William's legacy even in modern times can be seen on the Bayeux Memorial, a monument erected by Britain in the Normandy town of Bayeuxmarker to those killed in the Battle of Normandymarker during World War II. A Latin inscription on the memorial reads NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS – freely translated, this reads "We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror's native land".

Physical appearance

No authentic portrait of William has been found. Nonetheless, he was depicted as a man of fair stature with remarkably strong arms, "with which he could shoot a bow at full gallop". William showed a magnificent appearance, possessing a fierce countenance. He enjoyed excellent health until old age; nevertheless his noticeable corpulence in later life increased eventually so much that French King Philip I commented that William looked like a pregnant woman. Examination of his femur, the only bone to survive when the rest of his remains were destroyed, showed he was approximately 5' 10" tall which was around two inches taller than the average for the 11th century.



Family tree

William is known to have had nine children, though Matilda, a tenth daughter who died a virgin, appears in some sources. Several other unnamed daughters are also mentioned as being betrothed to notable figures of that time. Despite rumours to the contrary (such as claims that William Peverel was a bastard of William) there is no evidence that he had any illegitimate children.

  1. Robert Curthose (1054–1134), Duke of Normandy, married Sybil of Conversano, daughter of Geoffrey of Conversano.
  2. Richard (c. 1055 – c. 1081), Duke of Bernay, killed by a stag in New Forestmarker.
  3. Adeliza (or Alice) (c. 1055 – c. 1065), reportedly betrothed to Harold II of England.
  4. Cecilia (or Cecily) (c. 1056 – 1126), Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen.
  5. William "Rufus" (c. 1056 – 1100), King of England, killed by an arrow in New Forestmarker.
  6. Agatha (c. 1064 – 1079), betrothed to Alfonso VI of Castile.
  7. Constance (c. 1066 – 1090), married Alan IV Fergent, Duke of Brittany; poisoned, possibly by her own servants.
  8. Adela (c. 1067 – 1137), married Stephen, Count of Blois.
  9. Henry "Beauclerc" (1068–1135), King of England, married Edith of Scotland, daughter of Malcolm III, King of the Scots. His second wife was Adeliza of Leuven.

Fictional depictions

William I has appeared as a character in only a few stage and screen productions. The one-act play A Choice of Kings by John Mortimer deals with his deception of Harold after the latter's shipwreck. Julian Glover portrayed him in a 1966 TV adaptation of this play in the ITV Play of the Week series.

William has also been portrayed on screen by Thayer Roberts in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), John Carson in the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965), Alan Dobie in the two-part BBC TV play Conquest (1966; part of the series Theatre 625), and Michael Gambon in the TV drama Blood Royal: William the Conqueror (1990).

On a less serious note, he has been portrayed by David Lodge in an episode of the TV comedy series Carry On Laughing entitled "One in the Eye for Harold" (1975), James Fleet in the humorous BBC show The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999), and Gavin Abbott in an episode "1066" (2004).



Further reading

  • Douglas, David C. (1999) William the Conqueror; the Norman impact upon England, Yale English monarchs series, London : Yale University Press, 476 p., ISBN 0-300-07884-6
  • Howarth, David (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, London : Collins, 207 p., ISBN 0-00-211845-9
  • Prescott, Hilda F.M. (1932) Son of Dust, reprinted 1978: London : White Lion, 288 p. ISBN 0-85617-239-1
  • Savage, Anne (transl. and coll.) (2002) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, London : Greenwich Editions, 288 p., ISBN 0-86288-440-3
  • Wensby-Scott, Carol. (1984) Proud Conquest, London : Futura Publications, 240 p., IBSN 0-7088-2620-2

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