William the Conqueror (1028-1087)

William, the Duke of Normandy under whose rule the Norman Conquest of England occurred in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1066, was born into a very troubled social and political situation and almost did not make it through his childhood.:”(My major source for the details of this entry is David Douglas’ excellent book William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England [University of California Press, 1967].)”: Normandy had begun its history in the year of grace 911 with the ceding of territory to Rollo the Viking by one of Charlemagne’s heirs, the weak ruler Charles the Simple (r. 879-929). Rollo, in turn, had passed the throne to his son William “Longsword” (d. 942) sometime around 927. There is some debate to this day whether the position with which Rollo was invested and which he passed down to his Norman successors was more akin to that of a “count” (comte) under Charlemagne or a “duke” (dux) in the style of later Medieval rulers. Whatever the case, within only a few generations his descendants would be unambiguously called “Dukes of Normandy.” William “Longsword” was followed by Richard I, Richard II, Richard III, Robert I, and at last the most famous of their lineage, William, the conqueror of England, who was born in 1028.

When William was only six years old, his father, Duke Robert, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He died there, leaving his son in the care of guardians. William’s position was most precarious, not least of which was because he was Robert’s illegitimate son and was thus known to the court as “William the Bastard.” Prior to leaving on his pilgrimage, Duke Robert had forced his magnates to recognize William as the lawful heir, but once Robert was dead, this changed. For several years power struggles occurred, in which William’s uncle, Mauger, worked tirelessly to protect the boy from being used – or even killed – by powerful families who considered him a threat to their own ambitions. Most of William’s supporters (that is, those who had been loyal to his father, Robert) were killed in these struggles between 1037 and 1040, and the social disarray in Normandy became so great that by 1042 the Norman ecclesiastics were working hard to bring the Truce of God into effect throughout the duchy.

Further complicating matters was William’s relationship with the Capetian King Henry I of France (ca. 1008-1060). Contrary to the patriotic claims of Norman writers at this time, William was Henry’s feudal vassal, which would make for serious political troubles throughout William’s minority and during his attempts to gain control over his duchy as he matured. Along with the protection of his father’s loyal agents (while they still lived), William’s position as heir of the duchy was safeguarded by Henry, and later Henry would demand various feudal obligations from his vassal as recompense for this royal support. For instance, in the critical year 1047, Henry entered Normandy at the head of a large army and at the Battle of Val-es-Dunes (of which we know little) rescued William from an otherwise overmastering force of rebelling Norman counts. In this year also, the Truce of God – rejected five years earlier – was at last formally established. Ordinarily the Truce’s power consisted in its ecclesiastical threats of excommunication for violators, but in Normandy it had an additional benefit. For in Normandy, the Truce was supported by the secular power, and the secular power was in turn granted an exemption from its terms. Thus did the forces of Duke William and his lord, Henry, have freedom to quell unrest during times when those responsible for the unrest would hardly dare to engage in fighting!

From the years 1047 to 1060, Duke William was largely occupied with consolidating his power in his duchy. He was nearly constantly at war, either with rebellious underlings or, at last, even with Henry himself over a matter of William’s feudal obligations which the king said William had violated. In the year of the incarnation 1052 William married Matilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. All accounts portray this marriage as being a happy one for both parties. In addition to at least five daughters and two other sons, Matilda bore William two future kings of England, William and Henry. It is an interesting foreshadowing of Duke William’s dealings with Rome that Pope Leo IX (r. 1049-1054) explicitly forbade the marriage in 1049 on the grounds of the “consanguinity” of the parties.:”(This was the argument that the marriage partners were too closely related by blood to be lawfully married, a common argument in the Middle Ages, which, often enough, was advanced with deliberate sophistry for the sake of mere political advantage.)”: That is, among other tenuous theories advanced as reasons for the ban, William and Matilda were alleged to be cousins in the fifth degree, both descended from Rollo the Viking. Whether any of these arguments were true is still a matter of debate among contemporary historians.

But the marriage was hardly concluded when serious tensions erupted between Duke William and Henry. This happened as a result of the king making peace with Geoffrey Martel (r. 1040-1060), the powerful Count of Anjou, with whom the king had been warring for some time. Geoffrey’s ambitions in northern France had already brought him into significant conflict with Duke William, and William rightly considered him a serious threat to the political integrity and stability of Normandy. Henry, for his part, seems to have felt that having Geoffrey on his side would provide a serious check on William’s ambitions and help the king maintain his claims over the duchy. Thus, when the king and the count made peace, William suddenly found himself in the difficult position of needing to oppose some of the plans and positions of his lord the king. Open war erupted when a coalition of Norman counts, strengthened in their resolve by the friendship of the king with Geoffrey, rebelled against Duke William.

In the autumn of the year of the incarnation 1053, Henry arrived in Normandy with his own forces, and a massive double-pronged attack on the Duke began. But William was so inspiring a leader that he managed to assemble an equal army, which clashed with the invaders on both sides of the Seine River. This engagement, known as the Battle of Mortemer, resulted in such a tremendous slaughter of the forces loyal to the rebelling counts and to Henry that the latter was forced to withdraw, leaving William the undisputed master of Normandy. Four years later (1057), the king combined forces with Geoffrey Martel and again invaded Normandy. William, exhibiting the same kind of savagery in battle that he had previously, and that he would during the conquest of England, engaged this renewed coalition at the Battle of Varaville, and for the last time defeated his overlord the king.

Two significant events occurred in 1060: the deaths of both King Henry and Geoffrey of Anjou. With his most powerful antagonists dead, and Henry’s successor, Philip, safely under the guardianship of Duke William’s own father-in-law (Baldwin V of Flanders), William’s power in Normandy was at last secured. From this point on, William was free to consider matters outside his duchy. The most significant such matter was the disputed succession of the English throne. The genesis of the Norman Conquest of England is found, in fact, in the disputed succession of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), who was half English and half Norman. During an earlier conquest of England by the Dane, Cnut, whose invasion had been too much for Edward’s aptly-named father, Aethelred the Unready, to handle, Edward had been sent to Normandy for refuge. Raised in Normandy, Edward was thoroughly educated in Norman ways. Many of his advisors were Norman, and this could not help but cause tensions with the native English magnates.

Throughout the 1060s the question of the succession became paramount, for Edward, by many accounts a Saint with an essentially “Platonic” marriage, had produced no heir. Reconstructions made from the sources suggest that Edward promised the throne to several different people at different points in his reign, and that two of these were Harold Godwinson, the Earl of both East Anglia and Wessex in England, and Duke William of Normandy. Of great significance for the eventual invasion of England by William was a trip to Normandy that Harold made in 1064, apparently on the orders of King Edward. The available sources that chronicle this trip are all post-Conquest and written by Normans, which has caused a good bit of difficulty for modern historians trying to analyze what happened. About all that is known for sure is that William would justify his invasion of England on the basis that he had extracted an oath from Harold, over the holy relics of saints, that Harold would stand aside when Edward died and allow William to claim the English throne.

But there were yet further complications. In a time when all of Western Christendom was about to be profoundly shaken by the Investiture Contest and the government of the Church subsequently reorganized into the form of the Papal Monarchy, William, both as Duke of Normandy and later as King of England, maintained a politically-beneficial relationship with the Church. Like his predecessor dukes, William was a supporter of the monastic reforming movements that were sweeping throughout Europe, most notably seen in the activities of the Cluniacs. This support necessarily brought him to the favorable attention of the papacy, which was assuming greater control over the reforming elements. When combined with the fact that the English Church appeared to the reformers to be mired in the drastic corruption of lay investiture, a powerful incentive existed for an alliance between William and the papacy. The papacy, accordingly, treated the plan for the invasion of England as if it were a religious crusade for the very honor of the Church. William could not help but feel that the time to strike was right, and this he did.

The unexpected death of Edward on or about January 5, 1066 forced everyone’s hands. Harold Godwinson immediately staked his claim to the English throne, provoking antagonistic responses from both his own brother, Tostig, and from William of Normandy. But Harold was soon forced to repel an invasion of Norwegians far in the north, and this distraction provided ample time for William to fully mobilize his forces and cross the English Channel only three days after Harold’s victory over the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford. Harold was thus again forced to march – this time with tired troops – hundreds of miles south in just a few days to meet the new threat. The decisive battle was fought on October 14, 1066, and is called the Battle of Hastings despite some disagreement among historians as to the exact location of the battlefield. The battle lasted almost the whole day, and through several twists and turns resulted in a thorough Norman victory over the English. Harold was killed by an arrow through the eye, and his demise marked the turning point of the battle.

The aftermath of Hastings saw William and his army consolidate their foothold in England through more bloody battles and the installment of Norman nobles on English lands. Various rebellions were raised and crushed, and by 1076 William had truly earned his title “the Conquerer.” The restructuring of England began in earnest. Among other things, the Norman Conquest created the conditions that were necessary for the complicated and violent feudal battles between England and France over the next several centuries. Within two generations after the Conquest, as a result of intermarriage, English monarchs would be simultaneously sovereign kings of England and dependent vassals of the king of France. The conflicted family and political loyalties created by this complex arrangement would run throughout the Crusades, and eventually lead to the Hundred Years War. As well, William’s policies helped to imbue England with a much stronger tilt toward royal control of the Church than had existed before.

Despite his earlier ready acceptance of papal approval of the invasion, once he was established in power William ignored the papacy’s claims on the English Church and upon his own political allegiance. English resistance to excessive papal claims of dominion – resistance which would continue to mount in the succeeding centuries and culminate in Henry VIII’s formal break from Rome in the sixteenth century – had an excellent model in the character and courage of William the Conqueror. Following the precedent of his Norman ancestors, the Conqueror was willing to view the pope as the ecclesiastical unifier of Christendom, but he was unwilling to allow the pope more than a token role in political affairs. Nor did he allow the pope a large amount of control over the churches in Normandy and England. Significantly, some of William’s lowest points politically coincided with the highest political points of the Papacy (e.g., Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077).

Nevertheless, under William’s great Archbishop, Lanfranc, the English Church was unified and revivified, and ascetic concepts of sainthood took firm root. Another important person to come out of the Conqueror’s reforms–or rather, out of the abortive attempt of William’s son William Rufus (r. 1087-1100) to wreck them, and England too–was no less than St. Anselm. The ecclesiastical and political fallout from the Conquest would come to a head again in the murder in December of 1170 of Archbishop Thomas Becket by agents of one of William the Conqueror’s descendants, King Henry II. However, such conflict between the spiritual and temporal powers within a single domain had no parallel in William’s own Norman and English domains. William may be perhaps criticized (from the safe distance of a thousand years) for taking too active a role in the affairs of the Church. Yet, from a different angle of approach, he appears as a guardian of the Church, protecting it from the unhealthy papalist system that was even then coming into its own, and which would increasingly damage–and finally, preside over the loss of–the great societas Christiana built up by the blood, sweat, and tears of so many generations.

William the Conqueror died in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1087, as the result of serious internal injuries sustained when his horse, frightened by the burning streets of a recently subdued town, reared and threw the Conqueror violently against the high pommel of his saddle. William may sometimes provoke indignation in Modern minds conditioned by the propaganda of the Enlightenment to think of the age of Christian cultural dominance that included William as “the Dark Ages.” This seems too hasty and unfair a judgment, however, when the larger context of William’s world, his life both religious and secular, and the many salutary effects of his presence and work upon subsequent history, are more fairly examined.


This entry was posted in 11th Century, Biographical Sketches. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.