William the Conqueror, the Norman invader, defeated the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold II Godwinson, in the famous Battle of Hastings, in 1066. He was sometimes known as William the Bastard and previous to his victory in Hastings, William Duke of Normandy.
A charismatic and ruthless leader, William the Conqueror believed he had a legitimate claim to the English throne. He was adamant that Edward the Confessor had promised him the crown, as Edward had no heirs. Furthermore, he claimed that Harold Godwinson, of all people – the most powerful man in England, had supported William’s claim too.
One thing was for certain, William the Conqueror was going to achieve his ‘right to the throne’ at any cost.
William the Conqueror – The Norman Conquest of England
William the Conqueror inherited the title of Duke of Normandy from his father, Robert I. He was only seven at the time. By the time William reached his early twenties, he had survived numerous plots on his life, although some of his guardians were not so fortunate. The time was now right for William Duke of Normandy to begin his expansionistic reign. His eyes initially set on surrounding territories in France, and then on to the greatest prize of all, England.
William the Conqueror was a descendant of Scandinavian Earls of Orkney, and great-nephew to King Canute’s wife, Emma of Normandy. This ancestry, he believed, gave him a claim to the English throne. However, Harold II Godwinson, now King of England dismissed this claim, which sent William into a fit of rage. Ever the ruthless leader, William the Conqueror quickly dispatched an army to invade England, with one aim to claim what was ‘rightfully’ his.
William the Conqueror was taking a huge gamble by invading. Harold II was a proven battle leader, and William would have to face Harold on his home soil. But, as luck would have it, Harold was already busy fighting his own brother, Tostig and Harald Hardrada of Norway, in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This was to prove a decisive factor in Harold’s defeat to William the Conqueror. By the time William had landed on the south coast of England, Harold exhausted from battle, managed to march down to meet William, and then endure a full day of horrific fighting. The outcome was to become one of the most famous moments in our history, the Battle of Hastings 1066, the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the start of the Norman period.
Now William the Conqueror had established himself firmly as front runner to the throne, forcing the only other claim to the throne, Edmund Ironside, to surrender at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. But many rebellions to Norman rule would follow. Even on his coronation, Saxon rebels were causing an uproar outside Westminster Abbey. Norman troops sparked more fury when they set fire to all the nearby dwellings, causing chaos in the surrounding area.
Harold’s sons pillaged the south-west of England from their Irish settlements, and Prince Edgar the Aetheling, the Danes and other English nobles sacked York. More rebellions rose up in the Midlands, East Anglia and on the borders of Wales and Scotland. To deal with all this uprising, William the Conqueror paid off the Danes and crushed the smaller rebellions. Then in 1069, William began the Harrying of the North campaign to subjugate the northern territories, which consisted of mass genocide from York to Durham. Famine followed in the north, as all the food, crops and farming tools were destroyed.
In 1071, William the Conqueror had crushed the Siege of Ely from persistent East Anglian resistance. Then in 1072 , William forced Malcolm III of Scotland to sign the Treaty of Abernethy, which formed a truce between both parties. William the Conqueror had finally stabilised his kingdom. This was reinforced, when William commissioned huge Norman castles to be built across the kingdom. A clear message to all of power and control, which could not be mistaken.
William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book
William the Conqueror was very good at the administration of his kingdom. He combined the old Saxon systems with the new feudalism system. The kingdom was divided up into large areas and handed to loyal Norman barons. In exchange, the feudalism system works by making the nobles swear an oath to the king to provide on-demand military service, and collect taxes from the land to then give back to the King.
The barons would then be in control of vast areas of land, and as this was too much to control, they would divide out smaller areas to trusted knights. The knights would then swear the same oath to their barons. The barons would rule over English lands for decades, while William the Conqueror attended pressing matters abroad.
In 1085, William returned to England to confront a possible attack by King Canute IV of Denmark, who thought of William as a usurper. However, this attack never came as Canute IV lost influence back in Denmark. It was while William was back in England that he commissioned the first great census of the land, the Domesday Book.
The Domesday Book was a survey and valuation of who owned what across the land, and was completed in 1086. The main purpose of it was to be used for taxing, and was an outstanding achievement, combining Anglo-Saxon organisation and Norman efficiency.
Royal subjects would be sent across the land to gather details on population numbers, which manors belonged to which estates, and which barons owed the King military service in the form of Knights.
It is thought that the name Domesday possibly referred to the biblical day of judgement, or Doomsday, when Christ returned to judge the living and the dead. In other words, the Domesday book would be the final judge with no further appeal. What was recorded in the book would be final!
Where is William the Conqueror Buried?
William the Conqueror would not see much reward from the work he put into the Domesday Book. He was injured in 1087 while besieging a French town, Mantes, that his own son Robert was rebelling from. Robert, who was allied to the King Philip I of France, was stirring up trouble in the town, which was enough to force William to intervene. William somehow managed to fatally injure himself on the pommel of his horse’s saddle, although an alternative story is that he fell ill. He was taken to the priory of Saint Gervase at Rouen, where he died on 9 September 1087.
William the Conqueror passed down Normandy to Robert, and England was given to William’s second surviving son, also called William, on the assumption that he would become king.
William the Conqueror Facts
- William the Conqueror was born in 1027, Falaise, Normandy
- His father was Robert I, Duke of Normandy
- His mother was Herleva
- He was crowned on 25 December 1066 at Westminster Abbey, aged 38
- He married Matilda of Flanders
- He had ten children, most notably:
- Robert II Duke of Normandy, William II, Stephen Count of Blois, Henry I
- He died on 9 September 1087 at Rouen, aged 59
- He was the first Norman King of England