The path running from a bastard son of a Duke to the conquest of England was paved with strife, broken promises, betrayal, and bloodlust. William of Normandy fought an uphill battle his entire life, molding him of stone from an early age. His battles are legendary and his brutality known throughout the world. Normans hailed him as a warrior, and Englishmen despised him as a usurper. However, none could deny one thing above all others. William was a conqueror.

William began his life shrouded in controversy. He was the only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, a powerful ruler often referred to as either “the magnificent” or “the devil” depending on which side of his sword someone encountered.1 His mother’s heritage was common, and at times, she was openly mocked as the daughter of a tanner. Despite his illegitimate status, Robert I nominated William as his successor before he embarked on a pilgrimage. The excursion proved fatal, and at age seven, William obtained nominal reign of Normandy.2

At fifteen years old, William was knighted as the seventh Duke of Normandy.3 A direct descendant of Rollo, the Viking warrior who carved out Normandy by conquest for himself and fellow “North Men” as the first ruler of Normandy.4 110 years later, Normans adopted both the Christian faith and the French language. Despite this assimilation, Normandy and France were not unified countries. Normans maintained many cultural aspects of their fierce Viking ancestors, and France did well to remain wary of the Duchy. Relations between rulers was in turns mutually beneficial or openly hostile. William learned the arts of diplomacy and statesmanship early. Norman nobles never completely accepted William’s position. For the first time in Normandy’s history, their ruler was both illegitimate and a minor. This emboldened many close to William, who saw a potential weakness within his status.5

Tomb of William the Conqueror | Courtesy of Flickr

William’s military prowess was truly tested in 1047 CE, as a full revolt erupted between the regions first acquired by Rollo that remained loyal to William and the territories granted afterwards.6 Rebel lands of Saxon Bayeux and the Danish Countenances sought to uproot William in favor of his cousin, Guy of Burgundy. Reluctantly, William sought aid from Henry, King of France, who had wronged him but understood the common interest of loyalty between rulers. Battles ensued and William decisively put down the rebellion. Afterwards, all disloyal nobles were banished, and William became the uncontested Duke of Normandy.7

Edward, William’s first cousin once removed, spent his youth among his Norman kinsmen before ascension to the throne of England in 1042 CE. Despite the age difference, documents infer that William and Edward were close and friendly. Edward displayed favoritism during his early reign and appointed many Normans to English high places within the nobility and the church.8 William’s first official visit to England in 1051 CE proved a turning point in both men’s lives. Afterwards, William referred to Edward as “his lord” in multiple correspondences, an implication some manner of sworn homage had occurred. Norman accounts insist that Edward appointed William as his official successor. English accounts maintain that despite the recent public dismissal of his wife, Edward was still in a position to sire his own children, and any promise extended was premature at best.9

Shortly after his return from England, William’s attention fell on Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. Matilda was a descendant of the royal house of Wessex, and claimed she would not be lowered to marriage to a mere bastard. Legend tells that she only accepted William’s marriage proposal after he went into a violent rage at her initial refusal. Despite suspected controversial beginnings, by all accounts William and Matilda cared for one another.10 Pope Leo IX condemned the marriage because the couple were both descendants of Rollo, potentially fifth cousins. However, this did not hinder William; they married in 1053 CE and sired 10 children.11 For the next decade, William and Matilda focused on domestic affairs and faced only sporadic internal power struggles. In 1060 CE, the French King Henry died, and his son Prince Phillip was crowned at age seven. This proved advantageous for William, as his father-in-law, Count Baldwin V, was named as Philip’s regent and guardian.12

He certainly capitalized on additional political strength when Harold, Earl of Wessex and brother-in-law to English King Edward, found himself shipwrecked on the Norman coast. The exact date is unknown; however, surrounding events place Harold’s venture into Normandy around 1064 CE. At the time, William and King Edward “were neither political or personal enemies.”13 There is no explanation in the English Annals for the excursion, and Norman sources contradict each other. William quickly assessed the situation as potential leverage against England. Harold wrecked on a region controlled by Guy, Count of Ponthieu and was quickly taken captive. William acquired Harold from the Count through paid ransom, but did not release him to England. Instead, Harold remained at the Norman Court and partook in at least one military campaign at William’s side. Harold was knighted for his bravery, and once again, a degree of fealty was allegedly sworn. William claimed Harold swore homage directly, agreed to act as a Norman vassal in England, and promised full support of King Edward’s successor. There is no definitive proof of allegiance, aside from the recorded engagement of Edward to one of William’s infant daughters. A strong possibility exists that Harold only swore to William’s demands under duress and in a weakened political position.14 Nevertheless, William soon held Harold to the oath, and thousands paid dearly for this broken promise.

Norman Conquest of 1066 CE | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

King Edward died childless on Jan 5, 1066, and within six months England was plunged into war over the crown.15 On his deathbed, King Edward legally nominated Harold as his successor. By 1066, Harold was not only the King’s brother-in-law, but Chief Minister and Commander of the Army.16 English nobles supported the claim and Harold’s hasty coronation took place the same bleak and snowy day that Edward was buried. Speculation exists that this was at Harold’s insistence and motivated by a guilty conscience after breaking his oath to William. English historians insist that the date was purely logistical. Winter weather was upon the country and to reconvene all the nobles a second time was not advised.17

Enraged by the deceit of both King Edward and newly crowned Harold, William launched a widespread propaganda campaign advocating his right to the English throne. His protests extended far beyond Normandy and France. An official plea reached the supportive Pope Alexander II’s ear. The Pope gifted a holy banner to William, a remarkable and noteworthy declaration of support, as a majority of such banners were only bestowed upon armies fighting against Muslims. King Harold did not counter his own case to the Pope.18 Instead, King Harold rushed strait into the defense of his rule from both internal and external challenge. “Both Harold and William manufactured a legal, moral, and popular case that convinced their supporters. It was almost inevitable the issue was going to be resolved by war.”19

The Autumn prior to his coronation, Harold and his brother Tostig’s relationship fell apart and Tostig fled the country in anger. Bent on revenge, Tostig joined forces with King Harald Hardrada of Norway against England and his own blood. While a betrayed Harold began troop musters in June of 1066 CE to face his brother and new-found ally Harald Hardrada, William’s hands were far from idle.20 William spent Spring and Summer of 1066 in travel across Normandy. His wife Matilda and eldest son Robert attested to every charter of the year, undoubtedly in a display of solidarity and strength. During the Duke and his family’s procession, a Norman fleet assembled in the River Dives’ estuary, while the army assembled. The entire force consolidated in Ponthieu’s natural harbor, where Matilda gifted William his Flagship Mora. William provisioned his considerably large forces in such a way that left no need to ravage surrounding lands, a considerable achievement not easily accomplished. By August 1066, the Normans only required one additional advantage: favorable winds.21

As William patiently waited to cross the Channel, King Harold’s situation grew dire. The king anticipated early Summer attacks that never came. On September 8, 1066, the English army disbanded from lack of supplies, and ships were recalled. England’s coast and borders were now undefended. No sooner than King Harold weakened his position did the enemy strike. Tostig and the King of Norway breached England’s shores. Totaling an estimated 10,000 men strong, the combined army engaged on September 20 and laid waste near York at the Battle of Fulford.22 Harold conscripted as many troops as possible in a fast rush to face the invaders who decimated Northern England. In a turn of luck, he caught Tostig’s army by surprise and narrowly won the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25 and killed both rebel leaders. This great victory was surely his downfall. While King Harold was distracted, William made landfall unopposed only a few days later at England’s southern coast, near Pevensey in Sussex. On September 28, he unleashed the full horde of Norman fury and laid waste to the countryside in efforts to draw Harold into battle. Once the king learned of the William’s brutal destruction, he set a neck break pace to London in attempt to regroup with his nobles. He arrived with the army’s fastest men in early October, a feat only possible if valuable yet slower foot soldiers were left behind. The probable intent was to again rely on elements of speed and surprise, but his plan to attack proved folly before the total force rejoined.23

On the evening of October 13, both armies camped ten miles outside of Hastings, but in vastly different conditions. The English were exhausted from travel, low on supplies, and now comprised primarily of untrained militia hastily formed. The Normans were well rested and bloodthirsty. The fate of England completely hinged on this battle’s outcome. The morning of October 14, 1066 revealed that the English army held the high ground. While forces were almost equal in number, English forces comprised solely of infantry while Norman forces hosted a mix of infantry, cavalry, and archers.24

William tactfully arranged his army in three force lines. Archers and light infantry comprised the front lines, heavy infantry filled the middle ranks, and the rear was held by cavalry. King Harold’s exact positioning is unknown; however, William’s decision to line the entire third row with cavalry instead of the right and left wings, as was traditional, might indicate it was improbable to outflank the English army. Natural uphill terrain proved that accurate archery would be difficult from William’s initial position. He then drew his sword and demanded full attack. Cavalry that faced limited mobility, instead opted to dismount and run towards their enemy. The battle for the crown began.25

Coronation of William the Conqueror | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The English lines held through the initial charge, but chaos shortly ensued. Near midday, William’s left flank fell back in disarray and King Harold seized the moment. Pressed with another full assault, the Norman army lines broke. Murmurings stirred that William was dead, and the remaining Norman forces nearly surrendered. The English, emboldened by this falsehood, forward rushed in a disorganized and haphazard manner. William caught wind of the rumor, which spread like wildfire, and amid the confusion sped to the front lines and rallied his men.26 “[He] rushed ahead of his men, brandishing his sword, mowing down his enemies.”27 Caught off guard and vulnerable, the English army quickly fell and by dusk King Harold was dead. William was not content with mere victory and gave chase well into the night. Not a single surviving man was captured or ransomed; only complete annihilation satisfied the Norman victors. The Anglo-Saxon reign died with Harold and the Norman Conquest had just begun.28

Varied reports contradict whether William allowed common English soldiers a proper burial. Harold’s mother entreated for her son’s body, a request initially denied; but eventually, an envoy transported the body for burial at Holy Cross, Waltham. In a political powerplay, by the time William agreed, the corpse was unrecognizable. William marched throughout England in campaigns of formal submissions and tributes. In a rare act of leniency, Harold’s widow, Dowager Queen Edith, kept her dower lands in an agreement not to openly confront William.29 Softness towards the widow was probably on Matilda’s behest. Throughout the marriage, William exhibited trust and thought highly of his wife’s ability. In another example of deference, William refused to settle the Abbey of Marmountier’s encroachment complaint. Instead, he sent the envoy back to Normandy with instructions for Matilda to dispense justice.30

Once William isolated London and nobles reluctantly submitted to his authority, he was crowned King of England on December 25, 1066 in Westminster Abbey.31 Matilda was crowned Queen Consort in 1068.32 King William immediately replaced all bishops with Normans throughout the country, English nobles opposed to his rule were exiled, and Norman nobles granted lands. He introduced Norman practices, namely castle-building to secure England.33 Despite these measures, or perhaps because of them, continued unrest and rebellion raged until 1071, when rebel and foreign forces were once again decimated by a full Norman army. This final battle at Ely Abbey in East Anglia brought the whole of England to heel and the Norman Conquest to full fruition.34

William’s legacy of a conqueror is alive and well to the present day. Every reigning English monarch traces their lineage to William, including Queen Elizabeth II. The most inclusive surviving evidence of the Battle of Hastings and surrounding events is drawn from the Bayeux Tapestry. At 224 feet in length and 20 inches in width, this masterpiece was most likely produced between 1067 and 1079 in Canterbury, England, and commissioned by William’s half-brother, Odo Bishop of Bayeux. The Tapestry holds 58 scenes, depicting over 600 men and three women. The Bayeux Tapestry begins with a scene of King Edward saying farewell to his brother-in-law Harold prior to his Normandy journey. The Battle of Hastings monopolizes a third of the tapestry. Despite its mastery, the final scene is missing from the recovered cloth. The most popular theory is William’s coronation was originally depicted.35

Cavalry charge depicted in Bayeux Tapestry | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
  1. Howard Curtis, trans., A Brief History of the Normans (London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd., 2008), 97.
  2. Frank Barlow, “William I | Biography, Reign, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 5, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-I-king-of-England.
  3. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 8.
  4. Annissa Noblejas, “Battlefields, Bribes, and Brides: Rollo, a Viking’s Path to Dukedom,” StMU History Media,” November 8, 2019, https://stmuhistorymedia.org/battlefields-bribes-and-brides-a-viking-path-to-dukedom/.
  5. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 9-12.
  6. Annissa Noblejas, “Battlefields, Bribes, and Brides: Rollo, a Viking’s Path to Dukedom,” StMU History Media,” November 8, 2019, https://stmuhistorymedia.org/battlefields-bribes-and-brides-a-viking-path-to-dukedom/.
  7. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 20-27.
  8. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 31.
  9. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 40-41.
  10. Tracy Borman, Queen of the Conqueror (New York: Bantam Books, 2012), iv.
  11. David Charles Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), 391–93.
  12. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 65-66.
  13. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 79.
  14. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 80-85.
  15. “Edward | King of England,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed December 16, 2019,  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-king-of-England-1002-1066.
  16. Edward Augustus Freeman, ed., William the Conqueror (296 Broadway, New York: Perkins book Company, 1902), 49.
  17. Nigel Kelly, The Medieval Realms (Heinemann Educational, 1991), 6.
  18. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 219, 222.
  19. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 212.
  20. Nigel Kelly, The Medieval Realms (Heinemann Educational, 1991), 6.
  21. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 220-21, 226-31.
  22. Adam Augustyn, “Battle of Hastings | Summary, Facts, & Significance,” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 7, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings.
  23. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 234-37.
  24. Adam Augustyn, “Battle of Hastings | Summary, Facts, & Significance,” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 7, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings.
  25. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 240-41.
  26. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 241-42.
  27. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 242.
  28. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 242-44.
  29. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 250, 256.
  30. David Bates, “Anger, Emotion and a Biography of William the Conqueror,” in Gender and Historiography: Studies in the Earlier Middle Ages in Honour of Pauline Stafford (University of London, Institute of Historical Research, 2012), 29–30.
  31. David Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 256.
  32. Elizabeth M. Tyler, “The Women of 1066,” in England in Europe, English Royal Women and Literary Patronage, c.1000–c.1150 (University of Toronto Press, 2017), 262, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt1whm96v.13.
  33. Frank Barlow, “William I | Biography, Reign, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 5, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-I-king-of-England.
  34. David Charles Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), 220-22.
  35. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2019, s.v. “Bayeux Tapestry,” by Mark Cartwright.

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37 Responses

  1. A fascinating well-written article about an event that I did not know about before reading it. The challenges William faced while consolidating power are truly astonishing. His success in supplying his troops during his war with King Harold is also an extraordinary accomplishment. His story is truly an epic for the ages and his successes are given the proper respect they deserve.

  2. it was interesting learning about someone who rose from a situation where he would be disparaged into becoming a ruler that conquered a large state and became a king. bastards where often people that would have to be concealed to avoid ridicule towards ones house and could bring down their honor. they were in-between the peasants and nobles so they could not form meaningful relationships with either.

  3. This is a fascinating article, I really appreciate your organization and description of these events as they were clear and easy to understand. It was interesting to learn about how an adolescent of “illegitimate” status grew up to be such a powerful force and a literal conqueror, in spite of those that saw weakness in him and betrayed him. Also, your inclusion of the images of the Bayeux Tapestry and the tomb was intriguing!

  4. Usually I don’t really read history related things but this was intriguing! Seeing how William was able to do so many things in his lifetime, like dealing with betrayal and having to battle your brother in law to the throne. I also heard about William the conquerer but never knew his story and it is fascinating! The article is well written and leaves you wanting to read more and more!

  5. Its weird how people married to someone they were related back then and it was “normal”. I know some cultures still practice this but it is not as common. Also, I can see how William could be upset that he was promised to something and then not. But he claimed as if he was betrayed, nothing was written in stone or even on paper for that matter. William was overcome by power, he wanted more even when what he had was, I would say, really good, he was already the seventh Duke of Normandy.

  6. If England continues to not go through any more coup de tats that completely decimate the current royal bloodline, and England maintains some sort of monarchy government, then it is safe to say that the royal lineage of King William and Queen Consort Matilda and all their current descendants will live on forever until England is no longer a sovereign country.

  7. The story of this William guy (thought for a second Shakespeare) was something interesting to see and read. I found it surprising how he kept most relationships in his rule under control and at peace except of course his brother-in-law and played a trap card for him in one battle as a facade to later have him gone from existant. This is something interesting to hear and interests me in more of England’s history.

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