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William I - 1066-1087

Key Facts about William I

William of Normandy was the illegitimate son of Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy, and Arlette, the teenage daughter of a local tanner from the little French town of Falaise, where they lived. One day, Robert saw Arlette washing in the river near his castle. She was revealing much of her teenage charms. Robert was only seventeen himself, and he simply couldn't resist her. . . . There was no marriage, but, as the old chronicler wrote, 'in the fulness of time she bore him a son'. William had arrived.

Though his inheritance of his father's title was agreed by Norman lords, he had to contend with other rivals throughout his early years. This no doubt served to harden his character and made him the leader best able to take on the conquest of England.

His father was always away, picking quarrels, fighting off enemies. One day Robert went off on a pilgrimage never to return, so William became Duke of Normandy at the tender age of seven or eight. Three of his guardians were murdered so William had to grow up quickly and learn how to rule Normandy for himself. Almost against the odds he survived, thanks to his sheer physical strength and powerful character.

After a somewhat tempestuous courtship William married his cousin Matilda of Flanders, and they had four sons and five daughters. And unusually for those days he was quite faithful to her. When she died in 1083 aged fifty-one William was so grieved that as a gesture he swore to give up his favourite occupation, hunting, and he kept his vow.

He became known as the Conqueror after he landed with his army at Hastings and defeated Harold of East Wessex in 1066. His claim to the English throne was based on a promise made to him by Edward the Confessor, after William had protected Edward during a period of exile in Normandy.

No one will ever know when William conceived his bold plan to invade England, but quite likely his ambition was first aroused when he visited his great-uncle, King Edward the Confessor, fifteen years before the momentous Battle of Hastings. On that visit Edward is supposed to have told William that he would make him his heir. Then there was that memorable occasion when Harold, shipwrecked in Normandy and in William's power, had been 'persuaded' to make a solemn promise to support his claim to the English throne. William must therefore have felt doubly justified in making his invasion plans with the promise made to him by Edward the Confessor, and the solemn oath made to him by Harold. England was his by right. There was no doubt either, after that decisive battle at Hastings, that England belonged to him by force. On Christmas Day 1066 William was crowned in the same new abbey that had already seen the funeral of Edward and the coronation of Harold. Finally, England was his by indisputable law and the ancient ritual of anointment.

The year 1066 is engraved on the minds of many as the date when English history began. And indeed it marks a turning-point in our whole way of life. The Saxon world of Alfred the Great and his successors gave way to the Norman world of William, who brought with him a new language and a new administration of ferocious efficiency. He immediately began a building programme of castles and cathedrals of unparalleled magnificence throughout the land. The story of the conquest after 1066 is one also of ruthless force. Local revolts were fiercely suppressed, especially the opposition in East Anglia led by Hereward the Wake. William pushed relentlessly into Wales, into Scotland, and in about six or seven years Norman rule was virtually complete. The 'feudal system' was established.

William immediately set about getting control of his new kingdom. He had brought members of the Norman nobility and clergy with him to help him in his task and rewarded them with lands confiscated from the Anglo Saxons. He also tried to create a body of administrators which included Anglo-Saxons but this failed, and he reverted to ruling the land with members of the Norman nobility.

In order to get a clear idea of what he owned, William ordered a complete inventory of all lands and buildings throughout the kingdom, later to be known as the Domesday Book. It is a remarkable document, a fascinating account of the land which William now held tightly in his conqueror's fist. Then, in 1086 he summoned all landholders to the bleak hill-top fortress of Old Sarum, the old city of Salisbury, to swear allegiance to him in a ceremony we now call the Oath of Salisbury. Oaths were important to William. And to make sure that he had no opposition from the Church, he sacked the old Saxon Archbishop, Stigand, and put Lanfranc in his place, the monk who had negotiated with the Pope about William's marriage to his cousin. Lanfranc quickly transformed the Church along Norman lines.

The Normans were the greatest builders of their time. William's most famous personal contribution is the Tower of London - that is, the massive foursquare building known as the White Tower. And at the same time he also began to build that other great royal residence Windsor Castle, choosing the site himself. Winchester was still the capital of the country, and to make sure that everyone knew that he was king, William had himself re-crowned there almost every Easter, in the Old Minster. Meanwhile, he ordered a vast new cathedral to be built, just alongside the Saxon Old Minster, so that people should recognise that the Old Minster simply wasn't good enough and would be demolished just as soon as the new cathedral was ready. And for his personal pleasure he ordered a large tract of forest near Winchester to be cleared of unnecessary farms and villages. A 'New Forest' would be the king's own hunting-ground. Deer still graze there today.

You might well suppose that William enjoyed a happy and successful reign, but towards the end of his life the reverse is true. His later years were clouded by the rebellions of his eldest son, Robert. What was worse, Matilda, his faithful wife, actually supported Robert against her husband. There were reconciliations, but family atmosphere must have been soured. After a final flaming row, Robert rode off with William roaring curses after him. Matilda retired to Normandy, where she died. And with battles, revolts, family feuds and the death of his wife, the last four years of his life must have been lonely and melancholy for William. He was King of England, but as well as this he was still Duke of Normandy, and his territories were enormous. He must have been forever on horseback.

One day, quarrelling with King Philip of France, who had taunted him for being so fat, and whose soldiers were continually plundering his Norman lands, William's final battle came. Marching on Paris, he had just devastated the little town of Mantes, beside the River Seine. The whole town was in flames and William's successful soldiers were busy pillaging and looting. Then, just as he rode through the ashes in triumph, his horse trod on a burning cinder, reared up and plunged, throwing the corpulent sixty-year-old king forward on to the iron horn of his saddle. He received mortal internal injuries. After six weeks of agony the Conqueror died, still in his native Normandy, in the priory of St Gervais just outside Rouen. His body was taken for burial in the abbey which he himself had built at Caen, where it still remains today.

William had been a ruthless and quick-tempered king, but he had a passion for law and order, so that when he died people spoke of 'the good peace he made in this land so that a man might go the length and breadth of the kingdom with his pockets full of gold . . . and no man durst slay another'. It was a fitting tribute to the unprecedented firmness of rule which William the Conqueror had brought to England.

Key Events during the Reign of William I

1066 - William and his Norman army defeats Harold II and the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. Harold is killed and William is crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

1067 - William suppresses a Saxon revolt in Kent, led by Eustace of Boulogne.

1068-69 - Rebellion against the Norman invasion breaks out in Mercia and Northumbria.

1070 - William dismisses Stigand as Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc of Bee is appointed in his place.

1071 - William defeats a revolt led by Hereward the Wake in East Anglia, thus putting an end to Saxon resistance to his rule.

1072 - William invades Scotland.

1079 - William's eldest son, Robert, leads a rebellion in Normandy, but is defeated by his father at the Battle of Gerberoi.

1086 - The Domesday Book is completed.

1087 - William dies of his injuries after falling from his horse while besieging the French city of Nantes.

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