William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey
William the Conqueror in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey (Cotton MS Domitian A II, f.47)

Biography

William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066. His conquest had major implications for the history of both regions, from displacing much of the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon nobility to reshaping the English language.

William’s early life

William was the son of Robert I, duke of Normandy (reigned 1027–1035), and a woman of lower social status named Herleva. Through his mother, William had two half-brothers: Odo, the bishop who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry; and Robert, who became Count of Mortain. Both of William’s half-brothers gave him important support later in his career.

Robert II died in 1035, and so William became duke of Normandy aged seven or eight. In the early years of his reign, William’s control of Normandy was challenged by various nobles and relatives. He only secured his hold on Normandy with victory at the Battle of Varaville in 1057.

William also launched campaigns against other neighbouring rulers to expand his territory. These included his attack on England in 1066, which culminated with him becoming king of England.

William and England before the Conquest

1066 was not William’s first foray into English politics. William was related to King Edward the Confessor of England (reigned 1042–1066). Edward’s mother, Emma, was William’s great-aunt, and Edward had lived in exile in Normandy following the death of his father, King Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016).

William probably visited England at least once before 1066, in 1051. This visit is recorded in just one source, a single version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Count William came from overseas ... and the king [Edward the Confessor] received him and as many of his companions as suited him, and let him go again.

Nothing else is known about this visit. It is possible that at some stage Edward declared William to be his heir, as claimed by later Norman writers. But there is no mention of this agreement in other contemporary sources.

As well as visiting England, William hosted English nobles at his court in Normandy. The English nobleman Harold Godwinson, who became king of England in 1066, may even have accompanied William on some of his campaigns in northern France.

The Norman Conquest of England

Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, and Harold succeeded him as king of England. Soon afterwards, William began preparing for an invasion. Later Norman writers claimed that both Edward and Harold had promised William that he would be the next king of England, but it is unclear whether this was to justify William’s conquest after the event.

William’s army crossed the English Channel on the night of 27–28 September 1066, just as King Harold marched north to fight an invading force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway (reigned 1046–1066) and Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig.

After defeating and killing Harald Hardrada and Tostig, the English marched south to Hastings, near Pevensey, where they were defeated by the Norman army on 14 October. William then advanced through Southeast England. He was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.

England and Normandy after the Conquest

William initially followed the patterns of coinage and royal government established by previous English monarchs, and he even issued writs in the Old English language. In the late 1060s, a number of English nobles rebelled against Norman rule in England, among them the earls Eadwine and Morcar. William responded by devastating large areas of the north of the country.

In 1070, he also removed a number of English bishops from office and replaced them with Normans or his allies.

At Christmas 1085, King William ordered a survey to record who owned land and other assets in England. This administrative survey ultimately resulted in Domesday Book.

Although William was king of England, he spent the majority of his time from 1072 onwards in Normandy. He also continued to conduct military campaigns in what is now France. While attacking Mantes, 52 km (32 miles) outside of Paris, he was taken ill, and he died on 9 September 1087.

William the Conqueror was succeeded as king of England by his second son, William Rufus (reigned 1087–1100), and as duke of Normandy by his oldest son, Robert Curthose (died 1134). A third son, Henry, became king of England (as Henry I) in 1100.

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