William the Conqueror & The Norman Invasion of 1066

“God ordered that the English should cease to be a people”
(iam populum non esse iusserit)

The Normans (Normanni or “Northmen”) were the conquerors of Western France around AD 911. As reward for their conquests, these Viking warriors were granted a region to settle near the mouth of the Seine along the West Coast of France. The area is now known to us as Normandy. The first Viking ruler of Normandy was Rollo, a formidable warrior who fought against Charles “The Simple,” King of the Franks. The seed of Rollo continued to rule the Normandy region for many years to come.

The fourth descendent of Rollo was Robert Duke of Normandy (a.k.a. Robert “the Devil”), cousin of Edward the Confessor. One morning Robert was out riding when he spotted a woman named Arlette or “Herleva” washing her linen in a stream, perhaps near the castle in Falais. Despite being already married, Robert was instantly inflamed with the heat of passion like David when he first saw Bathsheba, and Robert carried Herleva back to his castle to live with him for the rest of his days. In 1027 she born him a son: William “The Bastard.” William resented being labeled a “bastard” throughout his lifetime.

A Statue of William The Conqueror in Falaise, France -the medieval capital of Normandy

Robert Duke of Normandy died when young William was only seven or eight years old in 1035, and for years thereafter William’s caretakers struggled to preserve his birthright (many of William’s guardians were attacked and tortured). Nevertheless, as William grew he became the rightful Duke of Normandy. His court closely watched the actions unfolding across the Channel in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly the party of Godwin and his son Harold. In a remarkable twist of fate, Harold’s life was brought into the hands of William of Normandy in 1064. Harold’s ship met inclement weather along the coastline and was wrecked. Harold was held ransom by the Count of Ponthieu, but William Duke of Normandy intervened and aggressively lobbied for Harold’s release, leading to a friendship between Harold and William. Together, they both swore an oath that William might one day become King of England. It was intended to fulfill Edward The Confessor’s promise to bequeath the crown to William.

In January 1066, the elder King Edward The Confessor lay on his deathbed, a weak but celebrated king, and he supposedly muttered a dying wish that Harold “Godwinson” be crowned king instead of William of Normandy. Thus, upon the death of Edward the Confessor news spread rapidly and the parties of Harold marshaled themselves in the Whitan (or the roughly formed “council” of aristocrats at the time), as well as forces in London, the Midlands, and the south. Harold was crowned king at Westminster Abbey in 1066 despite his earlier promise to William of Normandy (Harold was the first person to be crowned at the newly built Westminster Abbey). As Winston Churchill notes: “this event opened the gates of war” (65). The medieval French Chronicler William of Poitiers also notes that the mood of the Normans and the Franks was that Harold was an “insane” Englishman who greedily perjured himself when he took the throne of England amidst a band of rebels and confederates.

Almost immediately an invasion consisting of Harold’s resentful half-brother Tostig as well as the Danes from Scandinavia (the descendants of Canut) launched an invasion up the Humber River. Harold roused the countryside and he quickly marched up the old Roman Road to York where he resoundingly defeated the invading forces at The Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Never again would Scandinavia threaten the English crown. However, despite the importance of this battle, it is greatly overshadowed by events that unfolded in the south.

William of Normandy’s carefully plotted invasion of England began at Pevensey. He brought with him forces from many Norman barons, as well as Brittany, along with mercenaries from Flanders, Italy, and Spain, all who came with promises of land and rewards for conquering England. When all was said and done, in the summer of 1066 a massive fleet of seven-thousand men set sail from the mouth of the Somme to win glory for the most renowned Duke of feudal Europe. As the story goes, William landed unopposed in England. Upon stepping out of his boat he fell to the ground and, while clutching fistfuls of sand, he promptly shouted: “You see, I have taken England with both my hands.”

William had been granted the blessing of Pope Leo IX for the invasion -thanks, in part, due to William’s early support for Church reforms back in 1049. Initially, he had a rocky relationship with the Church in Rome, but like most other people in his life, William appears to have bullied his way into currying favor.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William lifting his helmet to prove he had not been slain during the Battle of Hastings

At any rate, Harold and his fleet were exhausted and depleted from The Battle of Stamford Bridge in the North. Upon hearing of William’s landing, they made haste for London and fortified themselves, preparing for an imminent attack. The two massive armies, Norman and Saxon, met near Hastings where William was stationed on October 14. 1066 (hence The Battle of Hastings) and they fought viciously all day. The Normans cried “Dieux aide!” (or “God help us!”) while the English chanted “Ut, ut!” (“Out, out”). Having made little progress through the iron-clad wall of the English, William orchestrated a sham retreat that ultimately spelled the end of the English. Harold’s men chased the retreating Normans down a hillside and were instantly surprised and savagely executed. Next, William ordered his archers to shoot high into the sky and aim for the forces behind the English wall. The rain of arrows poured down on the English and one such arrow pierced Harold in the right eye, followed by a brutal sword or axe chop to the leg. Both wounds dealt a mortal blow to the fledgling king. In the confusion, the English lost the battle and retreated into the rear woods. William, a fierce warrior who reportedly had no less than three horses killed underneath him during the course of battle, charged forward. The fleeing English were hacked down. Harold’s body was recovered and wrapped in purple and hidden among the rocks. William offered him a proper burial on Saxon land at Waltham Abbey, a church which Harold had founded. The actual location of the battle was fought inland from coastal Hastings, at a place aptly called “Battle” (a word that comes down to us from the Franco-Norman word Bataille).

Now the de facto King of England, William began the difficult and menacing process of subjugating the English countryside, often by brute force. He surrounded the City of London, burning a flaming circle around the city, until he was crowned king by Aldred, Archbishop of York on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey in 1066. All the lands south of the Humber fell under William’s rule. Within two years his Duchess Matilda of Normandy, who had ruled Normandy in his absence, traveled across the Channel to accept her coronation at Westminster in 1068 (later that same year she gave birth to a son named Henry). Meanwhile, William continued his conquests into Northern England hunting down exiles and laying the countryside to waste (including the scorched earth warfare in the “harrowing of the north”) until finally in 1070 the entirety of England fell to William “The Conqueror.”

In the early years under the heel of Normandy, all of England was remade in the Norman image. The English language was replaced with French, the official courtly language of preference for hundreds of years. Much of the sophistication of Mediterranean Europe was brought to England as it turned its gaze away from the Viking-Scandiniavian people in the North, and now refocused their gaze on France and the continent. In 1085, William commissioned the creation of the Domesday Book -a meticulous survey of his new people, their land, livestock, holdings, headcount, and potential tax revenue. The methodical nature of the Normans, as a diligent lawyerly people, is remarkably evident in the Domesday Book. One memorable story from the Domesday Book is of Lady Godiva, the wife of a Mercian nobleman who rode her horse naked through the streets of Coventry in protest of her husband’s oppressive taxation. The story has been mythologized in numerous paintings and it gave birth to the phrase “Peeping Tom.”

Unlike the barbaric raids of the Anglo-Saxons centuries prior, the Normans settled England and intermarried with the people. It was not mass genocide, though the Normans were certainly not above reproach. Their harshness was the stuff of legend.

The Domesday Book

The Norman era in England has long been remembered as a time of brutal oppression, hence why the phrase “the Norman Yoke” has continued to be used as a rallying cry among rebels. The old earls and barons of England were replaced with Norman men who pledged the support of their knights to the king. William was a vainglorious, unpleasant, and vicious man. He was known to sever the hands or feet of his opponents, as well as blinding or terrorizing them. William instated an ostensibly Norman government and aristocracy in England and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts the years of toil and harassment the people faced under the Normans and their looming castles that sprang up throughout the countryside, edifices which became known as denizens of “devils and wicked men.” Some 500 castles were erected, including what became known as the famous White Tower in London, the future central keep of the Tower of London.

After years of rebellion and infighting, including an infamous feud with his eldest son, Robert Curthose, by the end of William’s reign the kingdom had finally settled under Norman overlordship. In August 1087 while campaigning to recover territory from the King of the Franks, William’s horse stumbled and William was crushed against the saddle, causing severe abdominal injuries. William was sent to the Convent of St. Gervais near Rouen where he lay dying for several weeks. He was attended to only by a clutch of monks. Many people greatly feared approaching William, even those closest to him, while he was dying but William finally gave up the ghost in 1087. In his old age, William had grown quite large. After his death, monks attempted to force William’s corpulent body into his burial chamber but his cadaver burst open and filled the church with a horrid odor. His funeral came to a rapid and unceremonious end for such a formidable warrior-king.

William bequeathed the Dukedom of Normandy to his rebellious elder son, Robert, but he saved the Kingship of England for William II (William Rufus).

Timeline of the Norman Monarchs:

  • William The Conqueror (December 25, 1066 – September 9, 1087)

    • Spouse: Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders
    • Bastard son of Robert Duke of Normandy (hence the moniker “William The Bastard”)
    • Duke of Normandy from the Viking bloodline. He conquered all of England following his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066)
  • William II, William “Rufus” (September 26, 1087 – August 2, 1100)

    • Spouse: Unmarried
    • The second son of William The Conqueror, William Rufus was known as an unpleasant man who openly flaunted the sacred customs of the Church. He was likely a homosexual, never married, and was an unpopular ruler.
    • William Rufus was killed in a mysterious hunting accident in the New Forest.
  • Henry I “Henry Beauclerc” (August 5, 1100 – December 1, 1135)

    • Spouses: Edith (went by the name Matilda to sound more Norman) daughter of Edgar the Aetheling; Adela, daughter of the Count of Louvain.
    • Henry I was present at the hunting party where his brother was killed. He wasted no time in mourning and was crowned King of England three days later at Westminster Abbey.
    • Henry I repaired relationships with the Church and united his lands abroad, but he was a licentious man siring over 20 bastard children.
    • Henry’s only legitimate son William died in the tragic White Ship sinking. This caused a crisis of succession which eventually led to a prolonged civil war.
  • “The Anarchy” (1135-1153)

    • A 20 year civil war between Henry’s bastard son Stephen Count of Blois, and Henry’s legitimate daughter and appointed heir Matilda (“Maud”). The period ended when Maud’s son Henry (soon to be Henry II of the Plantagenet house) claimed the throne.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Domesday Book, the writings of William of Poitiers, the writings of William of Malmesbury, Henry Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (c. 1130), John Hayward’s The Lives of the Three Normans, Kings of England (1613).

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