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William I
King of England, Duke of Normandy
BL MS Royal 14 C VII f.8v (William I).jpg
William I the Conqueror, King of England. (British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII f.8v)
King of England
Reign 25 December 1066 - 9 September 1087
Coronation 25 December 1066
Predecessor Harrold II (Godwinson)
Successor William II
Born c. 1027
Died 9 September 1087 (aged c. 60)
Rouen, Normandy
Consort Matilda of Flanders (1031 – 1083)
House House of Normandy
Father Robert I, Duke of Normandy
Mother Herleva

William the Conqueror (c. 1027–1087), also known as William I of England, was the first Norman King of England (1066–1087). He was also the Duke of Normandy from 1035 until his death.

At the Battle of Hastings William defeated Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. That event is shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. He changed the course of both Norman and English history. He and Harold fought to see who would have the English throne. Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

Early life and minority

William was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy by his concubine Herleva. He was born in Falaise, Normandy in 1027 or 1028. William became the Duke of Normandy when his father died in 1035. In 1034 or 1035 Duke Robert wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He made his noblemen swear to make his young son William their duke if he was killed.

But William's minority rule of Normandy did not start well. Some Normans did not want a boy as their duke. Robert II Archbishop of Rouen was a powerful man in Normandy. He protected William. King Henry I of France also approved of William. In 1037, Archbishop Robert died. Without his support Norman nobles began fighting among themselves. Some wanted William out of the way and tried to kill him. One of William's servants was killed in the very room where William slept. Two more of William's protectors died during this time. Normandy was in complete disorder.

In 1042 William held a church council in Normandy. At that council the church made a new law called the Truce of God. It was to help stop all the private wars. There could be no fighting on feast days or fast days. No fighting was allowed from Thursday night until Monday morning. The punishment for breaking the truce was excommunication. William probably reached the age of majority in about 1044. He no longer needed tutors. He could now rule on his own.

Duke of Normandy


The private wars continued into 1046. William's rule depended on the loyalty of his viscounts. By the fall of 1046 many of the families in lower Normandy began plotting to replace William as duke. Guy of Burgundy, William's cousin, was sent to William's court in hopes he would do well there. William gave Guy castles at Brionne and Vernon. But Guy wasn't happy with this and decided he should rule Normandy himself. He became the leader of what was by now an open revolt. Two of William's viscounts joined Guy. William realized this was a serious threat and he asked King Henry for help. The French king came right away and brought a large army. The combined armies of Duke William and King Henry met the rebels at Val-es-Dunes. The rebels were defeated and Guy fled to his castle at Brionne. William kept the castle cut off from food or supplies until Guy gave up in 1049. The duke forgave his cousin, but Guy soon returned to Burgundy. William's victory at Val-es-Dunes gave him some control of Normandy.

A church council met in October 1047 near the battlefield to consider a new Truce of God. No private wars would be allowed from Wednesday evening through Monday morning. Also no such fighting was allowed during Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. This followed other such truces in place elsewhere in France. But the king and duke were both excluded from this truce. They were allowed to wage war during these times to keep the peace. William's peace in Normandy was now supported by the church.

Rise to power

Statue d'Dgilliaume lé Contchéthant à Falaise 02
Statue of William the Conqueror at Falaise made by Louis Rochet in 1851.

The battle of Val-es-Dunes was the start of William's rise to power. As the king had stepped in it was more his victory than William's. But William's nobles now began to see him as a leader. He could now think about taking a wife. Shortly before 1049 William decided to marry Matilda of Flanders. She was the daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders and Adela of France, who was the daughter of King Robert II of France. Before it could take place Pope Leo IX refused to allow the marriage. He did not give a reason but the two were cousins. Some time between 1050 and 1052 the two married anyway. But it wasn't until 1059 that another pope, Nicholas II, lifted the ban on their marriage.

While William was building his power in Normandy things were changing around him. King Henry had supported him and William had helped the king against the count of Anjou. About 1052 Count Geoffrey of Anjou and the king suddenly made peace. Just as suddenly the king turned on William. At the same time two of William's uncles, Archbishop Mauger and Count William of Arques rebelled against their nephew. William fought his uncle at the castle at Arques. King Henry now led a large force (army) into Normandy to help Count William of Arques. But Duke William met him in battle and won. Without the king's army to help, the castle had to give up. Duke William sent his two uncles away from Normandy.

In 1054 the king again entered Normandy with a large hostile force. He split his army in two and led the southern forces himself. His brother Odo led the second force east of the Seine river. This time William had all of Normandy supporting him. He had everything that could be used as food removed ahead of the French armies. This would cause them difficulty in keeping their soldiers fed. William also split his soldiers into two armies. William's forces watched the king's armies looking for any chance to attack. When Odo's forces reached the town of Mortimer they found plenty of food and drink. This caused his forces to relax and enjoy themselves. The commanders of William's second army caught them by surprise and killed most of Odo's soldiers. Those who did survive were taken prisoner and held for ransom. When the king got the news that his brother's army had been destroyed his army was struck with panic. The king and his men left Normandy as fast as they could. King Henry I agreed to a peace that lasted three years. But in 1058 the king broke the peace and invaded Normandy again. Just as before William kept the king's army close but waited for the best time to strike. This came as the French army was crossing the Dives river at Varaville. The king had already crossed the river and watched as his army was destroyed as they entered the water. He took what remained of his army and left Normandy for good. The king died a short time later. The new king, his young son Phillip, was under the care of William's father-in-law, Baldwin V. France was no longer hostile to Normandy and this allowed William the freedom to expand.

Normandy and England

In 1002 Ethelred King of England married Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy. The alliance formed by this marriage had far reaching effects. When Canute came to the throne of England in 1016, he took Emma of Normandy as his wife. Her two sons by her former marriage fled to Normandy for their own safety. Edward, the older son, stayed in Normandy for many years at the court of the dukes. The last duke who protected him there was his cousin William. Edward became King of England in 1042. in 1052 Edward made William his heir. In 1065 Harold Godwinson was in Normandy. While he was there he promised Duke William he would support him as successor to the English throne. On 5 January 1066 Edward the king died. But Harold did not respect his oaths. The next day, the day of the funeral, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England. The story was that on his deathbed, the king had changed his mind, and promised Harold the throne. Harold was not royalty himself and had no legal claim on the throne. For weeks William must have known Edward was dying. But the news of the king's death and Harold's taking the throne must have been a surprise to others.

Norman invasion of England


William began his plans for invasion almost as soon as he received news of the events in England. He called a meeting of his greatest men. William made plans to gather a large army from all over France. His influence and wealth meant he could mount a large campaign. His first task was to build a fleet of ships to carry his army across the English Channel. Then he started gathering an army. His friendship with Brittany, France, and Flanders meant he did not have to rely only on his own army. He hired and paid soldiers from many parts of Europe. William asked for and got the support of the pope who gave him a banner to carry into battle. At the same time Duke William was planning his invasion, so too was Harold Hardrada. The king of England knew both would be coming but he kept his ships and forces in the south of England where William might land.

William may have had as many as 1,000 ships in his invasion fleet. They had favorable winds to leave Normandy on the night of 27 September 1066. William's ship, the Mora, was a gift of his wife, Matilda. It led the fleet to the landing at Pevensey the next morning. As soon as he landed William got news of King Harold's victory over the Norwegian king at Stamford Bridge in the north of England. Harold also received news that William had landed at Pevensey and came south as quickly as he could. The king rested at London for a few days before taking his army to meet William and his French forces.

Battle of Hastings

Battle of Hastings-battleplan
Battle of Hastings, .

King Harold's army took up a position on an east-west ridge north of Hastings. The ridge itself was called Senlay Hill. They found the Norman army marching up the valley in front of them. While Harold had more soldiers, they were tired from the forced march from London. William formed his lines at the base of the hill facing the shield wall of the English. He sent his archers halfway up the slope to attack the English. He sent his mounted knights to the left and right to find any weak spots. At first William's knights tried to break through the shield wall with the weight of their horses. But they were attacking uphill and could not gain any speed. Harold's front line simply stood fast and was able to fend off any attacks. William's army began to fall back with rumors of Duke William's death. William removed his helmet so his men could see he was still alive. When William saw that many of Harold's men were following his knights back down the hill he used a trick he had learned years before. He turned suddenly and charged the oncoming English foot soldiers who had no chance against mounted knights.

This tactic worked at least two more times during the battle and made Harold's shield wall weaker. Now William used something new. Where his attacks by knights and soldiers had been separate movements he now used them together. Where his archers had not succeeded against the shield wall he had them shoot high into the air so the arrows came down on top of the English. This may be where king Harold was killed by an arrow through his eye. The shield wall finally broke and the Normans were on top of them. By nightfall the English were either dead on the field or being hunted down by William's troops. William called his troops back and they all spent the night camped on the battlefield.


The battle was won but the English still had smaller armies which had not joined King Harold at Hastings. They had lost their king but were still trying to reorganize. William rested his army for five days before moving towards London. His line of march took him through several towns he either captured or destroyed. When William reached London the English resisted for a short time but in the end surrendered. On Christmas day in 1066 William was crowned King of England. His victory at Hastings gave Duke William the nickname he has been known by ever since: 'William the Conqueror'.

King of England

Early reign

William chose to be crowned at Christmas. This was partly because he thought the English would be less likely to riot at this high feast day. It was also a good choice because he believed it was God's will he be king. Now the king, William spent a few months in England. He then returned to Normandy leaving England in the hands of two capable men. These were his half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and William FitzOsbern. Odo was made the Earl of Kent while FitzOsbern became the earl of Hereford. The remaining three English earls were left in place. When William sailed back to Normandy with him were many of his followers. Many of his soldiers who had been paid and others he wished to keep track of. In particular these were the English Archbishop Stigand and Edgar Atheling. He also brought his remaining three English earls, Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof. This was so none of them could start a revolt while he was away. William had his duties at home to take care of. Also many of his soldiers needed to come back to keep the duchy safe.

When William returned to London in December of 1067 he began to find out what problems had come up while he was gone. Hertfordshire had been raided by Mercians. Then Exeter had not accepted the rule of the new king. William raised money from all those parts of England that would pay. He also called out English levies. Exeter surrendered after one of its hostages was blinded. After he subdued Devon and Cornwall all seemed quiet. At Winchester William sent for his wife Matilda who was crowned Queen of England there at Pentecost.

By summer more rebellions had broken out. At the same time others were fleeing England. Edgar Atheling along with his mother and sisters left for Scotland where they were welcomed. In the North strong anti-Norman groups were gathering around York. Earl Edwin and his brother Morcar left William's court to join the rebels in the north. William then built a castle at Warwick. This caused the Earls and others to give in to William. Other castles followed. William then entered York where others came to him and submitted. He then negotiated with the king of Scots to prevent any invasions of England from the north. But his campaign in the North was not as effective as he thought. In 1069 a second uprising developed into a war. The men William left in charge had been killed. A small Norman force was holding out in York when William came to their aid. After building another castle William left Earl William FitzOsbern in charge. For the next five months the north was quiet. But the northern English leaders had sent word to King Swein in Denmark offering him the crown if he could defeat the Normans. Swein sent a Danish fleet to England.

In the summer of 1069 the Danish fleet appeared off the coast of Kent. It moved up the coast towards the north, raiding as it went. William and his army were in the south guarding against any incursions. Finally the fleet joined the English rebels on the banks of the River Humber. The remaining English earls all deserted William and joined the combined English-Danish forces. They moved against the Norman garrison at York and killed all but a few women and children. William Malet, a Norman who had lived in England before 1066 was also spared.

Harrying of the north

William's northern army was wiped out and York was in ruins. At the same time smaller rebellions were breaking out in Wales and southwest England. William knew he was in trouble. He began by calling in all his commanders and troops to combine his forces. The king knew that with a smaller army he had to deal with one group of rebels at a time. He sent William FitzOsbern and Brian of Brittany to deal with Exeter. William himself fought an army moving in from the east. In both cases the Norman armies were victorious. He now moved on the northern armies that had destroyed York. But he was unable to get any farther north than Pontefract. After trying for several weeks William bribed the Danish Fleet to withdraw from York for the winter. They agreed and returned to the mouth of the Humber to winter there. William was now able to move up to York. He rebuilt the castles there. He then had his forces spread out and destroy everything useful for the English and Danish army to feed itself. The result was widespread famine and the people of the area either left or starved to death. This was William's infamous harrying of the North. The result of all this was the surrender of his English Earls and most of the rebels in England. The few remaining groups were quickly crushed by William's army. But one group proved more stubborn. This was at Chester and after a forced march during Winter, William surprised them before they were ready. After their surrender he built two more castles there then returned to Winchester.

Ruling England and Normandy

William never again had to lay waste to a county as he did to Yorkshire. He had dealt with the main threats to his rule but some had only been solved in part. The Danish fleet came back in 1070 this time led by King Swen. They joined a small group of rebels on the Isle of Ely led by Hereward the Wake. Again William bribed the Danes to leave and then dealt with the rebels. Hereward was never heard from again.

William now had to rule both England and Normandy. He found he had to be present to keep things under control. When he was in Normandy trouble often broke out in England. When in England, though, Normandy was being ruled by his wife Matilda. But Fulk Rechin, the new count of Anjou, had taken Maine from William's control. William had to take it back in 1073.

In 1082 William arrested his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent. The reasons are uncertain but Odo was trying to raise an army to march on Rome. His plan was to become the next Pope. William put him on trial on the Isle of Wight. In addition to other crimes was that of trying to raise an army among William's soldiers. As William pointed out, they were needed for the defense of England. Odo protested that not even a king could judge him. As a bishop only the Pope could. William replied that he wasn't seizing a bishop, he was seizing his earl who he left in charge during his absence. Odo was imprisoned in Normandy for the rest of his life.

In 1083 Queen Matilda died and was buried in Caen. The two had been very close and only disagreed over their son Robert Curthose. Robert had repeatedly rebelled against his father yet kept in contact with his mother. This caused a rift between them. Philip I of France had found it difficult for his vassal to become a king like himself and so resented William. Not strong enough to fight William himself, when Robert Curthose rebelled against his father, King Philip helped him.

In the summer of 1085 William learned that Canute IV of Denmark was getting a fleet ready to sail against England. William came back to England in the Autumn with many soldiers. He had to pay them and feed them, at great cost. It may have been at this time he realized he had no records of what was owed him as king. He didn't know if he was collecting all the taxes that were due.

Domesday Book

Pictures of English History Plate XII - Domesday Book
Writing the Domesday Book.

At his Christmas court at Gloucester in 1085 William asked that a great survey be taken in every part of England. The king wanted to know how many people lived in his [kingdom|[realm]]. He wanted to know the size of every property, what each was worth, and how much income it brought in. No such survey had ever been made in England before. It was unique in its details and its contribution to English history. The Domesday Book was the first public record in England.

The text of the book fit into two volumes. The first covered thirty-one counties. It was called 'Great Domesday' because of its size. The second covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk and was called 'Little Domesday'. The facts were recorded by several panels made up of bishops and earls. Each panel collected information on several counties. William was presented with a large collection of written records on 1 August 1086. This became the Domesday Book, though it wouldn't be bound into books for almost another century.

Last years

William died when he was in Rouen, France from injuries he had received from falling off a horse he owned.


William and his wife Matilda of Flanders had at least nine children.

  • Robert (c.  1050–1134), Duke of Normandy succeeded his father.
  • Richard (c. 1052c. 1075.
  • William (c. 1055–1100). Succeeded his father as King of England.
  • Henry (1068–1135). Succeeded his brother William as King of England.
  • Agatha; promised in marriage to Alfonso VI of León and Castile but died before the wedding.
  • Adeliza.
  • Cecily (c. 1066–1127), Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen.
  • Adela ( 1137), married Stephen I, Count of Blois.
  • Constance ( 1090), married Alan IV, Duke of Brittany.
  • Matilda.

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