William The Conqueror
William the Conqueror was a man who gained great power throughout his time on earth. He was put into a leadership position and took great pride in fulfilling the duties that were required of him. The following paper will examine the life of William and will focus on his childhood education, how he came into power, the reformations he made as the King of England, the influence he had on both the Churches of Normandy and England, his role in the Domesday Survey, and finally how his reign came to an end.
To begin, William was born in a great castle at Falaise which is situated west of Rouen. At the age of eleven William was sent to Paris where he received a careful education and was a very prepossessing and accomplished young prince. At this time he was under the care of a military tutor whose name was Theroulde, a veteran soldier who had long been employed by the King of France. He taught him to ride and to practice all the evolutions of horsemanship which were required by the tactics of those days. He also trained him in the use of arms, the bow and arrow, the javelin, the sword, the spear, and accustomed him to exercise in the armor of those days which was made of steel which warriors used.
Next I’ll focus on how William came to power in both Normandy and England. Williams father was Robert 1, Duke of Normandy, who named him as heir to Normandy. He succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy at the age of eight. At this time William was supported by King Henry 1 of France who knighted him at the age of fifteen. The people of Normandy were very happy to see William as their new Duke, he was a man of good stature and men were more than willing to follow him as they were impressed with his outstanding equestrian skills and impressive use of arms. In the following years the English Throne became vacant when childless Edward the Confessor died and at this time the throne was fiercely disputed by three men. William, Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, and the Viking King Harald the 3rd of Norway. William had a blood claim, through his great aunt Emma who was the mother of Edward. William also claimed that Edward had promised William the throne when he visited Edward in London during the Danish occupation in England. Lastly, he claimed that Harold had pledged allegiance to him by having him swear loyalty to him over the concealed bones of a dead saint. But, in January 1066, Harold Godwinson was declared King of England due to Edward’s last will and the vote of the Witenagemot (which was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated between approximately the 7th century and 11th century) Godwinson was formally crowned King by Archbishop Aldred. Upon being crowned, the new king immediately put together a large fleet of ships and mobilized a militia force in preparation of being attacked from several directions. After defeating his brothers, he marched his army 241 miles to meet William in the south. While Godwinson was at battle William took the following actions. He submitted his claim to the English throne to Pope Alexander the 2nd who sent him a consecrated banner in support. He then assembled a council of war at Lillebonne and openly began assembling an army in Normandy. After offering promises of English lands and titles, he had built up a formidable force of 600 ships and 7,000 men that included Normans, French mercenaries, and numerous foreign knights. Harold was of course waiting with a very large fleet for William on the south coast of England guarding the English channel. However, William’s army couldn’t cross the channel for several weeks because of unfavorable winds and while William was able to keep his army assembled, Harold’s was diminished by lack of supplies and falling moral. While this was all happening he also returned his fleet of ships to London which left the English Channel unguarded. It turned even worse for Harold when news came that Harald the 3rd, had made an alliance with Tostig and their forces had landed ten miles from York. Harold was forced to move his army North where his army defeated Harald and Tostig in a bloody battle at Stamford Bridge on September the 25th. This all worked out perfectly for William because by the time Harold could return his army to the south the winds had changed and William’s forces had crossed the English Channel and landed at Pevensey Bay in Sussex on September the 28th. He even had time to move his army to Hastings where he assembled a pre-fabricated wooden castle as his base where he waited for Harold’s army to return from the north. On October the 13th William received the news that Harold’s weakened army was approaching from London and the next morning William left the castle with his army advancing towards the enemy. Harold took a defensive position on top of Senlac Hill which was located seven miles from Hastings. The numbers for both sides were about equal and the Battle of Hastings lasted the entire day. However, William’s army included both a calvary and infantry along with many archers. Harold’s army consisted of only and infantry and very few archers which gave William a distinct advantage. Harold’s men fought bravely and they formed a wall of shields atop the hill which forced back William’s army several times and took many casualties. At this time their were also rumors around both camps that William had been killed, but William squashed those rumors and rallied his troops when he raised his helmet and shouted of the victory that ensued his men. After pushing back William’s men, many of the English infantry began to chase the Norman’s on foot. This was the turning point of the battle as the Norman calvary was able to repeatedly attack the English forces from behind as the Norman infantry continued to pretend to be retreating. The Norman archers also began to have a large effect as their arrows began to weaken the line of shields atop the hill. With one final Calvary attack, William and the Normans claimed victory and this is when Harold was most likely killed along with two of his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwin Godwinson. By that evening the English men were retreating in fear of falling to the same fate. After his victory William waited for a formal surrender of the English throne. However instead of declaring William as the new king, the Witenagemot decided to give the thron to the very young Edward, also know as Etheling. When William heard of this he instanstly began marching his army toward London but when they reached the London Bridge his army was pushed back and he decided to move west and attack London from the northwest instead. After receiving large reinforcements William and his men attacked the city and in early December after conquering London, Edgar personally gave the English crown to William in the town of Berkhamsted. William’s next move was to be officially crowned King of England and on Christmas day of 1066 he was crowned in Westminister Abbey by Archbishop Aldred. All of the previous events described were instrumental occurences that led to William the Conqueror taking his role as the King of England.
Once William was in control, he proceeded to make several major changes. These changes included increasing the power of traditional English shires, decreasing the powers of the earls and he made sure that all administrative functions of his government were to remain at specific English towns except for the court itself. In order to decrease the power of the earls, William decided to only allow them one shire apiece whereas before earls could gain power by ruling over multiple shires. Another major change that the Conqueror made was replacing the English language with the French language, a change that remained effective for almost 300 years. Also the traditional Anglo-Saxon cultural influence of England began to mix with the Norman one and this is how the Anglo-Norman culture came into effect. After changing the culture William focused on eliminating the past English aristocracy. He did this very quickly by getting rid of all English aristocrats who either resisted or opposed the Normans. Some were lucky and fled to Scotland while others were killed or sold into slavery overseas. To ensure his support and help to eliminate future uprisings William gave the former English noblemen’s land to the new Norman noblemen and he did this widely which helped to gain the support of his country and strengthen his political standing as a monarch. One very interesting thing that the Conqueror had done was the depopulation of several miles of land and turned it into a royal New Forrest which he used for the enjoyment of one of his favorite hobbies which was hunting.
The next thing that struck me when looking at the life and rule of William the Conqueror was his role in the history of the western Church between 1066 and 1087. When William claimed his victory in 1066 he brought three different ecclesiastical provinces (Rouen, Canterbury, and York) under a single domination. He also brought Normandy and England together which had previously responded to different influences. William believed that Christendom wasn’t a devout aspiration nor a threat to national independence. Something that he felt very strongly about was replacing the former English prelates and bishops with Norman prelates and bishops, this is commonly known as the Normanization of the church of England, and he also proceeded to do the same thing with the English abbeys. Obviously these actions taken were a major feature of Williams rule and it is very understandable as to why he would do so. The prelates of England were some of the closest counselors to the king, and the bishops were of great importance to the king due to the role they played in their office. Now that William was in control the bishops and abbots were more closely involved with secular affairs than ever before. Even with the power recently gained by the bishops and abbots, William himself made major decisions when Episcopal justice at times became ineffective, also he had the final say on any court disputes between the prelates as well as disputes between the prelates and laymen. David Douglas described Williams role in the church with this quote, “The dominant position occupied by William in the Church throughout his conjoint realm, goes far to explain the special nature of his relations with the papacy between 1066 and 1087”. This meant that Williams’s new status in the church, which was consecrated, had to be proclaimed by papal legates. His role in the English church can clearly be traced back to the same role that he took in Norman once he became the duke. William firmly believed that his duty as king was to secure the welfare of the church and as king he would not accept or give into any division of loyalty among his people. In other words the king was in control of all religious affairs which included those of the pope. An elected pope would not be recognized without the king’s approval and papal letters couldn’t even be received without his permission. Some believe William’s action to be seen as anti-papal but when looking at the current time in history it is more accurately viewed as traditional. The king was simply accepting the special duties that he had involving the church and he was determined to fulfill them. Professor Z.N. Brooke described William’s ecclesiastical throughout his reign as, “entirely natural and regularly consistent”. After studying William’s role in the church it became clear that the churches in Normandy and England were brought together much more firmly under the control of a man who was set on raising the church discipline while under his control. While in rule he successfully was able to revive the Church in Normandy and gave the Church of England the integrity which remained with it throughout the Middle Ages. Douglas summed up the importance of William’s effect on the church with this, “His ecclesiastical policy must be regarded as sincere and constructive, for although he was of necessity occupied incessantly with the acquisition and retention of power, he never allowed himself to be wholly immersed in secularity. His motives were undoubtedly mixed, but he made his own enduring contribution to the movement of ecclesiastical reform that marked the age, and which was itself a potent factor in the formation of medieval Europe”.
After looking at the life of William the Conqueror I believe that it is imperative to look at one of William’s most amazing accomplishments during his reign of England which was his production of the Domesday Survey, which in turn resulted in the Domesday Book. In 1085, while being threatened of an invasion by King Canute of Denmark, William held a court at Gloucester where the topic of discussion with his council was how England was occupied and with what kind of people. This document is exceptionally important for our understanding of Norman England. The purpose of William taking this survey is widely disputed between three main theories. Most scholars believe that the reason for the survey was to discover the funds that William could raise through a land tax in order to pay for the defense of England against the Denmark invasion. It’s also believed that the survey was taken so that William could get an account of the lands held by his tenants in order to exercise his rights as a feudal overlord. The last main thought is that William wanted to know the burden of mercenaries on his vassals so the he could properly redistribute the burden fairly. What the king wanted to find out through this survey was how much land and cattle that he owned in the country, he wanted to know the same concerning his archbishops, bishops, abbots, and earls. In other words the king wanted to know how much or what everybody who occupied land had. The investigation was to be conducted so thoroughly that the king would not allow one piece of land, one cow or ox, and not one pig to be left out. It is believed that the king most likely divided England into several regions and had each one investigated by separate panels of royal commissioners. These panels were to find out not only who currently ruled the lands and the number of livestock, slaves, fisheries etc. that they had but also who previously owned the land while King Edward was in rule. The king wanted his survey to be as detailed as possible which is why each land was to be surveyed three times. The fact that the king wanted to not only know about the details of the English country since the time he came into power but also the well being of the country before his reign came across me as a man who wanted to be sure that he was improving the well being of his people. To William it was very important to know all that he could about England’s people, tradition, and tax-paying capacity so that he could effectively defend his new land. What struck me the most about the Domesday Book, other than the fact that it was actually a successful survey, which is amazing when considering the time it was conducted and the unbelievable amount of information it produced, is that the dedication and attention to detail strongly reflects on the great character possessed by King William.
After completing the Domesday Survey, William immediately focused his attention on the defense of England from the oncoming attack from the Denmark forces led by King Canute, who had built up a large army as well as a formidable fleet and was preparing to transport it to England. However, while final preparations were being made, Canute’s men became aggravated with the king and began to turn on him. Canute was eventually captured and was murdered in the church of Odensee in July of 1086, this led to the abandoning of the planned attack and the threat to England from Denmark was immediately gone. Even with this happening William continued to concentrate on the defense, he now focused on the French who in 1087 who began to raid Normandy. William planned an attack that was designed to retake the Vexin(a region of land on the border of France and Normandy) for Normandy which he was forced to sign over to French control in 1077. William and his men crossed the Epte river to overtake Mantes, this was not only his last campaign but possibly the most brutal. When the French came to meet William’s army they were stormed by a surprise attack and retreated to Mantes where William’s men chased after them. King William had the entire city burned down and still today evidence of the former cities buildings is almost non-existent. However, while the destruction of the city was taking place, it is recorded that while William was maneuvering through the city on horseback his horse was spooked by the distractions and it threw the king with great force into the high pommel of his saddle. King William suffered traumatic rupturing in his abdominal area. Although he was able to return to Normandy while enduring excruciating pain, the injuries eventually proved to be fatal as he believed to pass away in the early morning on September 9, 1087. Before passing, King William made his dispositions, was anointed, and received sacrament form the archbishop of Rouen while on his deathbed.
The life of William as Duke of Normandy and King of England has not, and will not be forgotten. The Norman Conquest of England was without a doubt one of the most revolutionary events in English history. The best way I can describe him would be as a man of great character who more than fulfilled his calling in life, which was to be a leader. He led in a constructive way which proved to better both Normandy and England by the time his reign had ended.