Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: William I

[An image showing Who Are All These Kings?: William I]William I is usually known in England as William the Conqueror, but sometimes, particularly in his lifetime, as William the Bastard.

Many books imply that William was the first King of England, but there had earlier been a successful line of Anglo-Saxon Kings, and William became England's monarch by conquest.

He was the son of Robert I, the Duke of Normandy known as Robert the Devil, and Arlette, a tanner's daughter from Falaise, where he was born in 1028. Although illegitimate, he was acknowledged by his father as son and successor.

Robert died, aged 27, while on pilgrimage in 1035, which led to William becoming Duke of Normandy at the age of seven.

His early days as Duke were difficult, as rival factions at court fought for power, and no fewer than three of his bodyguards were murdered.

A rebellion by his cousin Guy de Brionne in 1047 led William to ally himself with Henri I of France, and together they averted the young Duke losing his Duchy.

In 1052, he married Matilda, daughter of the powerful Count Baldwin V of Flanders, which gained him a useful ally. It was also relevant that Matilda was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great, giving him another link with the English crown, which he already coveted.

During the 1050s and early 1060s, William consolidated his power in Normandy, gaining himself allies in Anjou, France and Brittany, while he became Count of Maine in 1063.

The ineffective English King Edward the Confessor, who had spent much of his life in Normandy, is said to have told William that he would succeed him. This may well be true. Edward was prone to making promises, but was not particularly bothered about keeping them, so long as he could be left in peace for hunting and the church.

It was also claimed by the Normans that Harold Godwinson had sworn to uphold William's claim. It seems very unlikely, however, that the strong, ambitious and arrogant Harold would ever have done such a thing.

When Edward died, early in 1066, there were several claimants to the throne. The one close at hand, and pragmatically the best choice for England, was Harold, who duly became King. This of course outraged William, who thereupon started making plans for the conquest of England.

In reality, he had little chance under normal circumstances of defeating the English under their strong new King, but he was greatly aided by the fact that another invasion, by Harald Hardraada and Tostig in the North, led Harold away, and he won a great victory at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire.

Wiliam's fleet was delayed by bad weather, but landed at Pevensey in Sussex three days after Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge. While waiting for Harold, he built a castle at Hastings. Harold's weakened army met the Norman forces at Senlac Hill, where Battle now stands, and William won the close-run Battle of Hastings, where Harold was killed, after which the English army surrendered.

William proceeded to take a roundabout route to London, pillaging and seeking submission as he went. He marched through Kent, burning Dover, and devastated much of Surrey. In the meantime, the teenage Edgar the Atheling was elected King by he English Witan.

The citizens of London would not allow him into the city, so he sacked Southwark and moved West, crossing the River Thames at Wallingford. At Berkhamstead, Edgar submitted to William, who moved on to London again. Ludgate was traitorously opened, and the Normans swept up Ludgate Hill. At the Battle of Cheapside, many Londoners were slain before the city finally capitulated.

William was crowned at Westminster Abbey by Ealdred, Archbishop of York, on Christmas Day 1066. Shouts of support by Normans outside the building were interpreted as rebellion, and more Londoners were killed and their houses destroyed. William himself, by this time trembling violently, was obliged to calm things down.

It is usually assumed that William became King of all England after the Battle of Hastings, but this is not really true. The South accepted him more or less straight away, but it was not so in the Midlands and the North, where the brothers Edwin and Morcar hoped to be left alone and recognised as Kings in their own right.

William was smart enough to realise that there was opposition to him, so when he returned to Normandy after three months he took with him the most likely men to lead rebellion, Edgar the Atheling, Edwin, Morcar and Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He left his half brother, Bishop Odo, in charge of England, and appointed Normans to important positions. While he was away, Odo repulsed an attempted imvasion by Eustace, the Count of Boulogne.

William returned in December 1067 and began the real job of coquest. He turned first to Exeter, whence Harold's mother had fled. Exeter capitulated after eighteen days, and William had a castle built. This became the pattern. Altogether 78 castles were built in England on William's orders, including Colchester Castle and the Tower of London. Their major purpose was to intimidate the English.

In 1068 his wife Matilda came to England and accompanied him on his campaigns. She gave birth to the future King Henry I at Selby, but returned to Normandy shortly afterwards, remaining there until her death in 1083.

While Matilda was in England, the first major uprisings occurred, led by Edwin and Morcar, with support from the Welsh, who burned the castle at Hereford. William easily crushed the rebellion, advancing on Warwick, Nottingham and York, after which he decided to rule the North through Norman lords instead of the old English aristocracy, which had been his original plan.

When he returned briefly to Normandy to quell a rebellion in Maine, there was another uprising in the North. Durham was attacked, and many Normans were killed. The rebels moved on to York, but were defeated by the returning William, who went on the sack the city.

Edgar the Atheling and Sweyn of Denmark then invaded the North and recaptured York, and it was this that led to William's infamous Harrying of the North, when he laid waste to the whole country North of the Humber. It was an awful thing to do, but it probably stopped a lot more killing that would otherwise have happened.

After this, resistance started to peter out, although Hereward the Wake maintained guerilla warfare from his base at Ely, joined by Earl Morcar, whose brother Edwin had been by this time murdered. Eventually Hereward too was defeated by William, but managed to escape.

Next, William marched into Scotland and exacted a promise from Malcolm Canmore that he would no more support his brother-in-law Edgar the Atheling. Edgar eventually submitted to William in 1074.

William returned to Normandy in 1072, and spent the next dozen years fighting against neighbours who had become afraid of his power. In the meantime, he had appointed the Norman Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury and installed Normans in most of the positions of power in England. He left the country in the hands of Richard FitzGilbert and William de Warenne.

In 1085, he brought an army over to England to resist a planned invasion by Canute IV of Denmark, which failed to materialisew when Canute was murdered. The Norman army though caused many problems by their very presence.

While in England, he decreed at Gloucester that the Domesday Book should be compiled, as he wished to know the value of what he had conquered, and therefore what he could expect to gather in taxes. This was done with amazing speed in 1086, and remains a deeply informative document.

Late in 1086, William went back to Normandy to deal with another revolt. In July 1087 he was besieging Mantes when his horse jumped awkwardly over a ditch. He received a stomach wound which led to peritonis. He was carried back to Rouen, where he died five weeks later.

When his body was taken to Caen for burial, it was discovered that the tomb was not big enough for him - he was unusually tall at five foot ten, and inclined to corpulence. His body was forced in, and burst, causing an overwhelming smell of putrefaction from which most of the attendants fled.

England was much changed by the Norman Conquest, leading to a racial disharmony that lasted for centuries. Although hard and ruthless, though, he did lay the foundations of a strong country.

He was mightily fond of hunting, and it was for this purpose that he established the much loved New Forest in Hampshire.

William and Matilda, who seem to have been devoted to each other, had ten children.

Robert Curthose succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy, and played an important part in English history. Richard was killed by a stag in the New Forest, and buried at Winchester Cathedral. Cecilia became the Abbess of Caen. Adeliza died when still a child. William Rufus succeeded as King of England. Constance married Alan, Duke of Brittany. Adela was the mother of King Stephen. Henry succeeded his brother as King of England. Agatha and Matilda both died in childhood.