Tuesday, 21 June 2011

English Monarchs: William I

Other Names: William the Conqueror, William the Bastard, William of Normandy

Reign: December 25th 1066 - September 9th 1087

Born: around 1027

Died: September 9th 1087

Father: Robert I, Duke of Normandy

Mother: Herlette of Falaise

Spouse: Matilda of Flanders

Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy
Richard, Duke of Bernay
William II of England
Cecilia of Normandy
Agatha of Normandy
Constance of Normandy
Adela, Countess of Blois
Henry I of England

Royal House: Normandy

Considering that he was born the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and a tanner's daughter, it's a minor miracle that William the Conqueror got as far as he did in life. Aside from his fifty-year stint in charge of his homeland, William is best known for his lightning conquest of England in 1066 followed by two decades of subsequent brutal suppression of the native Saxon population and ruling establishment. The rule of William would see the very national fabric of England change permanently, dragging the kingdom out of the Dark Ages and into a more enlightened era dominated by Norman culture, language and an altogether more continental style of doing things.

Duke of Normandy

Despite being illegitimate, William succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy when he was around eight years old. His early years of rule were not easy as the noblemen appointed to advise him kept being murdered and in 1047 a cousin, Guy of Burgundy, formed a rebel alliance against him. The young William only managed to put down the challenge with the help of Henry I, King of France.

Less than ten years later William found himself facing an invasion of his duchy by Henry. William beat of his would-be overlord in 1054 and again in 1057. After the victories against Henry, William was now confident enough to begin expanding his territory. By the 1060s he had become one of the most feared and respected leaders and military commanders in Europe. He was also a skilled diplomat who chose his friends very carefully, being especially astute in his dealings with the church.

Being on such good terms with the church turned out to be highly beneficial for William as the Pope had no qualms about sanctioning William's invasion of England in 1066. The foundations of the friendship were based in William's support of Pope Leo IX's programme of reforms, the aim of which was to ensure that bishop's chairs throughout Europe were occupied by dedicated and spiritual clergy rather than worldly noblemen handpicked by local secular rulers.

William's relationship with the church had not always been rosy, however. He had risked earning their wrath in 1053 when he married Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders, without papal consent. This led to a temporary falling out with his closest adviser, the Italian monk Lanfranc of Pavia but the issue was resolved in 1059 when the Pope backed down and recognised William's marriage. Lanfranc returned to William's court and would later become the first post-Conquest Archbishop of Canterbury, the instrumental force behind the establishment of Norman control over the English church.

Conquest of England

William's marriage to Matilda, a descendant of Alfred the Great, was helpful in giving William a viable claim to the English throne as his own link was weak. His great-aunt Emma of Normandy was the mother of the current King Edward the Confessor but that was about as far as it went. What cemented William's claim was that fact that he had allegedly been nominated as successor by Edward, a man who had spent much of his early life in Normandy and had a preference for all things Norman. William's claim was all but made official in the mid-1060s when Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex travelled to Normandy on Edward's behalf and made a sacred oath to ensure William's accession when his ailing master died.

When Edward died in January 1066 Harold surprised everyone by taking the crown for himself, claiming that he was honouring the dead King's last request. William was naturally very upset about this and his propaganda machine went into overdrive, churning out evidence that Harold had perjured himself by going back on the oath he made. The writings of William of Poitiers in the 1070s make the Norman opinion on Harold and his associates abundantly clear:

"The insane Englishman was not a choice of the people, but on that sorrowful day when the best of Kings was buried and the whole nation mourned his passing, he seized the royal throne with the acclaim of certain ubiquitous confederates and thereby perjured himself. He was made King by the unholy consecration of Stigand, who had been deprived of his ministry by the justified fervour of papal anathema."

Obtaining the papal dispensation for a military invasion was a mere formality and William was soon preparing an army and the invasion fleet that would take it across the English Channel. Despite having to wait longer than planned for favourable weather, William and his troops made the crossing on September 28th 1066, landing at Pevensey in Sussex. Legend has it that William stumbled on the beach but got up holding a handful of sand and made an ominous quip about holding England in his hand. The invasion party headed slightly inland and set up camp in a temporary wooden fort as Hastings, hoping to provoke Harold who was up in the north dealing with a Viking invasion. Harold scored a great victory at Stamford Bridge but now found himself having to face William in battle. He immediately returned south.

Bayeux Tapestry: William's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux leads the charge at Hastings.

On October 14th 1066 at Senlac Hill, a few miles inland from Hastings, one of the most important confrontations in English history took place. Harold's army had taken up a strong defensive position on the hill which William's Norman horsemen struggled to break through. At one point the word went up that William was dead but the Duke restored the morale of his men by making himself known. The fighting went on all day with both sides evenly balanced until the Saxon soldiers broke from their inpenetrable shield wall to pursue the retreating Norman cavalry, leaving them vulnerable to Norman attack. By nightfall the English army was totally defeated and Harold was dead.

When the news of Harold's death and the slaughter at Hastings reached the capital, the assembly of Anglo-Saxon nobles, the Witenagemot attempted to replace the dead King with the last remaining Saxon blood-royal claimant, Edward the Confessor's grand-nephew Edgar Ætheling. Edgar was proclaimed but never crowned as the English nobility were by now in no position to resist the army of William, which was rampaging around the southern counties en-route for London. Soon the English bowed to the inevitable. In early December the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand surrendered along with the rest of the nobles and Edgar Ætheling personally gave up the crown to William. On Christmas Day 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey.

King of England

As already mentioned, William's twenty-year reign in England is characterised both by the brutal subjugation of the native population and by the practice of essentially tearing apart English culture and government, starting afresh based on the Norman model. Norman-style churches and castles soon began springing up all across the land and French became the established language of the secular ruling class. Indeed the ruling class itself became French as William confiscated land from the old Anglo-Saxon earls and redistributed it among his Norman favourites who would go on to form the roots of the Medieval English nobility. It would be the biggest mass change of land ownership in England until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century. The victory at Hastings and the events leading up to it were commemorated (with a heavy pro-Norman, anti-Saxon bias) in the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-metre long embroidered cloth commissioned by William's brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.

Becoming King did not totally put a stop to English resistance. In fact, William continued to face challenges throughout his territories, especially in Normandy where the French King was still attempting to assert his overall authority over William's duchy. As such, especially after 1072, William spent most of his time back in his homeland, ruling England through his followers.

The resistance to Norman rule in England was quick to appear. In the first two years of his reign alone William found himself having to deal with uprisings popping up all over the place. The focal point of English discontent was in the north, where opposition was rallying around Edgar Ætheling. In 1068 Mercia and Northumbria revolted. William put down the rebels and Edgar fled to the safety of Scotland. Soon Edgar had married his sister to the King of Scots and was ready to try again, this time with Scottish and Danish assistance. Despite initial setbacks, William managed to defeat his northern enemies. The Danes departed England for the last time and Edgar went scuttling back to Scotland.

After all this trouble, William wanted to ensure that the rebellious north of England could never trouble his regime again. In 1069-1070 his army embarked on a ruthless and bloody campaign of suppression known as the Harrying of the North. The whole are of north-eastern England from the Tees to the Humber was laid waste. Crops were destroyed, livestock slaughtered, villages burned and people put to the sword, the survivors being left to die of starvation. In all it was estimated that over 150,000 people died. Even the pro-Norman chroniclers were shocked and appalled by the scale of the carnage.

William may have been somewhat harsh in his efforts to make an example of the people of the north but it seemed to do the trick. There were no more large-scale uprisings in England although opposition did rumble on until William defeated the Earls of Northumbria and East Anglia in 1075. Their defeat marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon nobility in England, which was now totally dominated by William's Norman barons.

Later Reign

The second decade of William's reign in England was largely peaceful thanks to his subjugation of the natives and increasing Normanisation of English culture. The best-known aspect of his later reign was the creation of a comprehensive nationwide tax and property survey known as the Domesday Book. Commissioned in 1085, the purpose of the Domesday Book was to assess the amount of tax he was able to extract from the population and to establish exactly who owned what. Everything right down to the last pig and plough is listed, providing an invaluable insight into the distribution of property ownership in 11th Century England. It also serves as a reminder of the long-term impact of William's campaigns of suppression. Even some fifteen years after the Harrying of the North, vast areas of northern England were noted in the Domesday Book as being wasta, essentially meaning wasteland.

In August 1087, an ageing an overweight William was flung from his horse whilst on campaign against the French King in his beloved Normandy. Nursing severe abdominal injuries, William lingered for several weeks at the Convent of St Gervais near Rouen, pardoning many of his political enemies before dying on September 9th, aged around 60. At his funeral in Caen the tomb specially prepared for him was found to be too small. When the monks tried to force the bloated Conqueror's corpse inside it burst, filling the abbey church with foul putrefaction gases.

On William's death, his lands were divided amongst his eldest sons. His eldest son Robert Curthose became Duke of Normany whilst his second son, William Rufus became King William II of England.

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