William the Conqueror

(William I of England)


William the Conqueror was the Duke of Normandy, and already recognized as the greatest warrior of his age when he landed a fleet at Hastings, and conquered the Saxon kingdom of England. In defeating the Saxon barons, and installing Norman nobles in their place, he radically changed the manner of government of England, and set it on the path to become a premier European power. The Saxon kings had never really centralized government, established control over all of the dominions of Britain, or formalized systems of taxation and law. Instead each Saxon noble governed relatively autonomously, with little interference or oversight from the King. The French system of government, inherited by the Romans, was far more formal and centralized, and it was this organizational genius, combined with the energy and industry of the Viking race that had made Normandy a great nation. It was this legacy of energy and organization that William the Conqueror passed on to the reluctant Anglo-Saxon race when he conquered at Senlac, and radically changed the course of English history.

William the Conqueror
William was the only son of "Robert the Devil", Duke of Normandy, and his commoner mistress, Arletta. Robert however, recognized him as a son, made him his heir, and required his barons to do homage to him. As long as Robert lived, there were no rebellions, but when he died on a pilgrimage to the holy land while William was still a boy, several other claimants to the throne arose, and for a decade Normandy was in a state of near anarchy. Several of William's guardians were killed and he himself escaped assassination by only a hair. William finally took refuge at the court of Henry I of France, whom both his father and grandfather had served with great distinction. By the time he was nineteen however, he took matters into his own hands, led an army into Normandy and resoundingly defeated the Rebel Barons, much to the delight of the common folk of Normandy, with whom he was very popular. His troubles were not yet over however. Rebellions continued and eventually even his old patron, Henry I turned against him. But in spite of all obstacles, William prevailed in every battle and gained a great reputation for himself.

In 1053 William married Matilda of Flanders against the recommendation of Rome. Their marriage was notably faithful and happy, and produced ten children. To make amends with the church the couple built cathedrals, schools, and abbeys and donated generously. William was at most times deferential to the interests of the church; his brother Odo was a bishop, and many of the ministers of his government, both in Normandy and England, were churchmen.

William's claim the crown of England was based on the fact that the mother of Edward the Confessor, the last Saxon king of England, was a close cousin. In 1051 William visited England, and it is said at this time that Edward, having no heir himself, named William as his successor. The choice was a very unpopular one in England, and the Saxon barons elected Harold, son of Godwine, the greatest of the Saxon earls. Harold was not of the royal line however, and had no better claim than William. To complicate matters further, in 1064 Harold was shipwrecked off the coast of Normandy and forced to promise support for William's claim. When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, William prepared a fleet for an invasion, and after a long delay, prevailed over the Saxons at the hard-fought, Battle of Hastings.

Immediately after assuming power, William made sweeping changes to the government of England. Nobles that fully submitted to him were allowed to retain a portion of their power, but rebels were swiftly dealt with, killed or exiled from England, and all of their land confiscated. He was a heavy handed ruler, but fair and just; unloved but respected. He had the support of the church and he reformed both laws and taxation to better serve most of the population. He reigned in England for over twenty years after the conquest, and by the end of his reign had thoroughly transformed the government. The greatest conflicts of his later years involved domestic disputes and rebellions led by his eldest son, Robert III, rather than insurrections from unrelated nobles. He was killed by injuries received when he fell of a horse during a siege in France.

Key events during the life of William the Conqueror:

William born to Robert, the Duke of Normandy, and a commoner mother.
Death of William's father on a pilgrimage to the holy land.
Survived a serious conspiracy and attempt on his life.
Secured control of Normandy from rebel Barons at the Battle of Val-se-Dunes
Visited England, and offered the English crown by Edward the Confessor.
Married Matilda of Flanders against the wishes of the Pope.
Henry I of France turns against William and invades Normandy, but is crushed.
Maine annexed to Dukedom of Normandy.
Harold Godwinson is shipwrecked and coerced into supporting William's claim.
Defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings.
Crowned King of England.
Commissioned Domesday book to catalogue all property within his realm.
Maine annexed to Dukedom of Normandy.
Harold Godwinson is shipwrecked and coerced into supporting William's claim.
Hereward the Wake leads a Saxon uprising against the Normans.
Campaigned against Malcolm Canmore in Scotland, who had married a Saxon princess.
Robert III, eldest son of William, rebels against his father.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
William of Normandy  in  Historic Boys  by  E. S. Brooks
William, Duke of Normandy  in  Stories from English History  by  Alfred J. Church
William the Conqueror  in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Normans Conquer England  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding
William the Conqueror—Death of the King  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Feudal System  in  The Story of Europe  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
End of Saxon England  in  Historical Tales: English  by  Charles Morris
English and Norman  in  Stories from English History  by  Hilda T. Skae
How the Northmen Conquered England  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
William the Conqueror Conquers England  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan
Hastings  in  The Boy's Book of Battles  by  Eric Wood

Book Links
In the Days of William the Conqueror  by  E. M. Tappan
William the Conqueror  by  Jacob Abbott

Image Links

William of Normandy, the boy-knight
 in Historic Boys

Young William of Normandy's castle of Rouen
 in Historic Boys

The castle of Falaise; birthplace of William the Conqueror
 in Historic Boys

Statue of William the Conqueror at Falaise
 in Historic Boys

Coronation of William the Conqueror
 in  The Story of the English

Statue of William the Conqueror at Falaise
 in The Story of Old France

Death of William the Conqueror
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

William of Normandy Landing in England
 in The Story of the Middle Ages
William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror
 in Back Matter
Wiliam at Hastings
Wiliam at Hastings
 in Back Matter

William the Conqueror
 in Patriots and Tyrants

William the Conqueror Receiving the Crown of England
 in European Hero Stories

Will you promise me?'
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

Down the same road by which the traitors had come William galloped.
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

William sets out for battle
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

Still swept over them the terrible storm of arrows.
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

Heavy stones were rolled from the walls.
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

A son who does not know how to obey his father is not fit to rule a duchy," said William.
 in In the Days of William the Conqueror

Short Biography
Hereward the Wake Saxon rebel who led resistance to William the Conqueror for many years.
Harold Godwinson Son of Godwin. Ascended to the Saxon throne when Edward the Confessor died childless.
Malcolm Canmore Long reigning King of Scotland, married St. Margaret, befriended Saxon exiles from Normans.
Robert the Magnificent Duke of Normandy and Father of William the Conqueror.
Emma of Normandy Norman princess, wife first of Aethelred, then of Canute. Mother of Edward the Confessor.
William Rufus Son of William the Conqueror. A bad and brutal king. Killed in the New Forest.
Henry I Son of William the conqueror. Competent king who reigned for 35 years. Left throne to Matilda.
Lanfranc Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, installed under William the Conqueror.
Robert III of Normandy Eldest son of William the conqueror. Raised a rebellion against his father.
Henry I Son of William the conqueror. Competent king who reigned for 35 years. Left throne to Matilda.
Odo of Bayeux Norman bishop who was the half-brother of William the Conqueror.