William the Conqueror, also known as King William I of England, Duke William of Normandy and William the Bastard, is remembered as one of England's most powerful kings. He introduced laws that gave the Crown and the aristocracy more power, completely changed England's formerly Saxon political, social and cultural practices, and radically shifted England's perspective on the world.
William in Normandy
William was born around 1027, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, Robert I, who was a direct descendent of Rolf the Viking. Robert I died when William was seven, and William became the Duke of Normandy. William's uncle, the Archbishop of Rouen, protected William and acted as regent until he turned 18. William's reign was plagued by wars with neighbouring countries Brittany, Maine and Anjou, as well as internal rebellions as the barons of Normandy tested William's strength. In 1049 William married Matilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders and descendent of Alfred the Great. He gained a reputation in battle as a brutal and unyielding opponent and gradually got Normandy under his control.
Before William's birth, the Viking raids in England forced the West Saxon royal family to flee to Normandy in 1013. Edward the Confessor lived in Normandy until he claimed the English throne in 1042, when William was 14. When he returned to England he gave fiefs to his Normandy allies in an attempt to keep the Saxon barons from becoming too strong. In 1051, Edward may have named William as his heir. After Edward's death, the Witenagemot1 elected one of the most powerful earls in England, Harold Godwinson, to the throne. William decided to claim the throne as his right as one of Edward's relations2.
At the same time, Harold Hadraada, a Norwegian warrior descended from Canute, or Cnut3, readied a fleet to attack England. He landed on the Humber River on 18 September, 1066, and occupied York two days later. Harold Godwinson marched his army north and defeated the Vikings and killed Hadraada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September.
Battle of Hastings
On 28 September, William landed his fleet near Pevensey in Kent. Harold marched his army from York to Kent to engage William's men in the Battle of Hastings on 14 October. William ordered a feigned retreat and attacked Harold's army as they broke ranks to pursue them. Harold was killed in the battle and the Saxons retreated. The Witan elected Edgar Atheling as Harold's successor but he reportedly offered the crown to William. Consolidating his power, William forbade pillaging and promised to keep ransoms low, and offered a pardon to all Saxons who hadn't fought for Harold.
Harrying of the North
In 1069 earls Edwin and Morcar raised armies in Mercia; and Gospatric, to whom William had sold the northern Earldom of Bernicia, was attempting to incite rebellion in Northumbria in favour of Edgar Atheling. William led his army north, but as he approached, his opponents withdrew. William pardoned Edwin and Morcar, and Edgar Atheling fled to Scotland. Rebellions erupted in the southwest, the midlands, Northumbria and the Fens near Ely. Although William pardoned the commanders of the opposing armies, he destroyed farmsteads and villages and slaughtered villagers all the way from York to Durham, and also Stafford, Derby and Chester, in what became known as the 'Harrying of the North'. He burnt everything between the River Humber and the River Tees and claimed all conquered land for the crown. This act was seen as excessive force, even for the time. Oderic Vitalis, the author of Ecclesiastical History wrote:
I dare not commend him for an act which levelled both the bad and the good in one common ruin by a consuming famine...I assert, moreover, that such barbarous homicide should not pass unpunished.
After William's victories, he scattered the barons' estates, and all areas except Kent, Durham and Chester were broken into smaller pieces to prevent blocks of resistance forming.
In 1085, William ordered the Domesday survey. Information was collected about all the lands in England and recorded in the Domesday Book. This allowed for easier and fairer taxation and has provided modern historians a wealth of information about social and economic 11th-Century Britain. The Domesday Book recorded how much land a particular knight owned, how many villages were on the land, and the number of cattle, grain, and buildings in every village. William used the information to assess the military power and wealth he had access to. William was the only medieval king to attempt such a survey.
In 1086, William ordered all nobles to Salisbury where they were required to swear an oath of fealty directly to him. This bypassed the traditional system in which a minor knight would owe fealty to a baron, who owed fealty to a count or earl, who owed fealty to the king. By assuring that every noble would owe allegiance to him over the person whose land they held, William hoped to stop any further rebellions.
Some of the changes made during William's reign were long-lasting. Saxons were dispossessed from the ruling class during the years of his reign and by 1086, 80% of the fiefdoms were in Norman hands. William centralised the powerbase of the crown; he as king held one fifth of all the land in England. William brought with him from Normandy the French military innovation of stone castles. Before he took power England had few, if any, castles. He ordered a number to be built, by forced labour, and by 1100 there were 84 castles in England. These castles helped the Norman lords keep the Saxon majority under control.
Of the many changes in England after the Norman invasion, one of the most significant was the widened gap between the nobility and the common people. After William led the Saxon Conquest and became England's first Norman king, the power base in England changed immensely. Normans took the powerful political and religious positions for themselves, and the former Saxon ruling class were reduced to tenants of the land they once owned. Of the hundreds of Saxon noble families that existed before the invasion, only four survived in the new Norman ruled England. The language barrier exacerbated the gap between the Norman rulers and the Saxon people. The Normans spoke French, and French became the official language of government and nobility until the 15th Century. Few common people could speak French, and few nobles deigned to learn Saxon English, although William did make an effort to learn the language. French was replaced by Latin as the language of culture and learning during the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The connection between England and France also became more important. England had previously been oriented towards the north, especially Scandinavia, culturally and historically. The new ruling class angled England towards France culturally and economically.
William the Man
Historians have seen William in several different lights. Some say that he was ruthless, harsh and cruel, while others say that his actions (specifically the harrying of the north) were justified at the time, and that he was a pious man. GSP Freeman-Grenville4 says that his actions were excusable as a 'custom of the times' and that he was iron-willed, courageous and a remarkable genius. Oderic Vitalis claimed that before William died he commented on his actions during the harrying of the north5:
I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire....In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people.
William died on 9 September, 1087, after falling on the iron pommel of his saddle while campaigning in France. After his death, William was buried in the Church of St Steven in Caen. His body was mostly destroyed in the 16th Century by a Calvinist mob, and the final remaining piece, a thigh bone, was destroyed in the French Revolution.
William was succeeded by his second son William Rufus, after his first son Robert Curthose rebelled against him in Normandy. After William the Second's death his younger brother Henry the First succeeded. The throne then passed to Henry's nephew Stephen6. Stephen was England's last Norman king.