In history

Over a span of 1200 years, there have been over 50 monarchs of England. Today we are going to look at one of the most influential early monarchs, William the Duke of Normandy, who you might know as William the Conqueror or William I.


Image: Statue of William the Conqueror in Westminster, London

When we last left off, our exploration of England’s monarchs had briefly covered the Saxon kings from Egbert through to Edward the Confessor.
Following the death of Edward, who was unmarried and heirless, he was succeeded by Harold Goodwin, who was nominated to the role by a team of nobles, becoming Harold II. The fact that he was nominated didn’t mean that his reign was safe however, as William the Duke of Normandy also had a claim – he was the second cousin of Edward and claimed that he had been promised the throne in the event of Edward’s death. The fact that Harold was named king instead caused him to raise an army and invade England, landing in on the south east coast, but before he became William the Conqueror, one of England’s most influential monarchs, who was he?

Historians are unsure of William’s exact date of birth, but they believe it to be around 1028. Though he was born into the nobility, his father was Duke Robert I of Normandy, he was actually illegitimate, though he was recognised as the Duke’s son and did ascend to the title on his father’s death. However, being both young (it was thought that he was around 8 years old at the time) and illegitimate meant his hold on the dukedom was a difficult one. His early reign mostly saw him trying to keep control of Normandy, with many of the nobles battling each other and manipulating him for their own ends.

However, following his marriage to Matilda of Flanders, he was able to quash any rebellions, though he did have to work to win her over, as well as his people. Matilda was the granddaughter of the French King Robert II and she initially turned him down. Rumour has it that he tackled her from her horse to show his displeasure. Whatever the truth, she eventually consented to marry him and the pair had ten children. Once he secured Matilda, he was able to start looking to expand his horizons. One kingdom that caught his eye was that of England, which, on the death of his cousin, Edward, was suddenly on the hunt for a new leader. Though Harold II had been named King of England, there were a number of other claimants, including his own brother. William bided his time assembling an army and waiting for the right moment to invade. Harold was busy with fighting among his brother’s supporters but did deploy forces to the coast where he had heard of plans for a Norman invasion, which eventually happened in the autumn of 1066.

The Battle of Hastings is perhaps one of the most famous battles to take place on British soil. Hastings, located in Sussex, has several points of interest relating to the battle, including an area of the town which is literally called Battle – it is where it is thought the actual fighting too place. The battle began at around 9 am on 14th October and it is recorded that both sides decided to stop for lunch during the fighting, little is known about the timeline and events of the battle, but it is agreed that it ended with the death of Harold, though whether that was by William’s hand is debated. The Bayeux Tapestry claims that Harold was killed with an arrow to the eye, but differing stories were told. He was identified the day after the battle and what became of him is unclear. Historians say that William ordered that the body be thrown in the sea, many of his army were left on the battlefield where they were slain. It is said though that Harold’s body was secretly recovered and buried at Waltham Abbey, which he founded. Though William had a decisive win at Hastings, he didn’t automatically become the King, there was a little resistance from the clergy and others who nominated an alternative king. However, after securing Dover, Canterbury and Winchester, William marched on London and began constructing a castle. Any resistance was stamped out during this time, and he was eventually crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.

Image: The stone marking the spot of the Battle of Hastings.

As part of his plan to secure England, one of the first acts William undertook as king was the ordering of castles, keeps and mottes to be built, including the Tower of London’s White Tower. He is also credited with Warwick Castle, Lincoln Castle, Dover Castle and Colchester Castle. This enabled him to defend large areas of land – handy when you want to keep a grip on a conquered kingdom. Another change he made was to introduce a new language, he had his new subjects speak Franglais, a mixture of French and English. He himself didn’t speak English and for around 300 years, up until the end of the Norman reign, France became the official language of Britain. The other thing you’ll likely remember him for is the Domesday Book which began in 1085 and was one of the earliest forms of record. It enabled William and his administrators to know just how many people were in his new kingdom and how much he could raise through taxes. This isn’t the end of William’s impact on England, he made changes in the church, culture and language which have continued through to the modern day. Not only that but he forged ties between his native France and England which lasted through to the middle ages and helped cease tension between Britain and Scandinavia. There is no doubt about it – William was one of Britain’s most influential monarchs!

Considering how busy he was keeping a hold on England and his Dukedom in Normandy, you wouldn’t think he had an awful lot of time for family but actually, he and his wife had ten children. He had a fractious relationship with Robert, his eldest son who went on to become Duke of Normandy following William’s death. Both his third born, William Rufus, and his fourth, Henry, ruled England, with the kingdom being left first to William Rufus and then going to Henry after his brother’s untimely death.

His other children were also influential, with many of them marrying into other royal families, including his daughter Constance who married Alan IV, Duke of Brittany, Adela, who married Stephen Count of Blois and Agatha, who was betrothed to Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile.

Sadly, for such a great king, William met a disappointing end.
Rather than die in glory as one would expect for a king, he actually died from a ruptured intestine. He was injured in battle in 1087, leading to a rupture which became infected. To add insult to injury, he was too big for the coffin made for him and his abdomen actually exploded when he was forced into it. His final resting place has also been destroyed a number of times, though you can find a stone marking the site at the Abbey of Saint Etienne in Caen, France.

Look out for October’s Monarch of the Month where we will look at the reigns of his two sons, William Rufus (aka William II)  and Henry I. Want to know more about William I? Why not visit one of the following places?

The White Tower, Tower of London, London
The White Tower remains the dominant feature of the Tower of London and provides the castle’s strongest defensive point.

Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire
Though the castle itself was built four years after William’s reign began, it is built on the site where he received the English surrender.

Battle, Hastings
Supposedly the site of the actual battle, the town of Battle includes the Harold Stone, marking the spot where King Harold died and the ruins of the first abbey built by William after his victory.

Corfe Castle, Dorset
Now managed by the National Trust, Corfe Castle was one of the first castles founded by William.

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