Image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William and his half-brothers. William is in the center, Odo is on the left with empty hands, and Robert is on the right with a sword in his hand.
September 28. 2016. William, Duke of Normandy, landed on England’s shores 950 years ago in 1066.
Excerpt “From Tribes to Nations“:
William the Conqueror m 1047 Matilda of Flanders
b 1027, Falaise Castle, Normandy b 1035
d 9 Sept 1087 near Rouen d 2 Nov 1083
Duke Robert of Normandy, a fourth-generation descendant of Rollo the Dane, was riding toward his capital at Falaise one morning when he saw Arlette, the beautiful young daughter of a tanner from his estate. The young maiden was washing linens beside a stream. Although the duke was already married to a woman of rank and quality, Robert fell in love at first sight with the sinewy Arlette. He whisked her away to his castle and lived with her for the rest of their natural days. To this union was born an only son, William, to become William I of England, called the Conqueror, the man who brought an end to the Saxon rule and established a new system of feudal economics based upon land and service to the king.
In 1034, Robert decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before leaving, he persuaded the Norman barons to accept William as his successor. Robert died on his journey, leaving seven-year-old William as Duke of Normandy. In these harsh times, a minor’s claim to entitlement was precarious. One by one, the great barons who had vowed to protect him came to violent ends. Rival ambitions stirred through Normandy.
Were they to be ruled by a bastard? Was the grandson of a tanner fit to rule over warlords and feudal knights?
The taint of bastardy hung over William for many years, hardening and embittering him. Many years later, at the siege of Alencon, the imprudent citizens of the besieged town hung skins over the fortifications, shouting, “Hides, hides for the tanner.” William was so angered by this taunt that he devastated the town and had the principal inhabitants flayed alive.
William was raised in a hard school of suspicions, intrigue, and constant combat. By the age of twenty he was a skilled military commander, aiding his overlord, Henry I of France, in stamping out rebellions with a precocious aptitude for government and war.
In 1051, William visited England and received from Edward the Confessor, his kinsman and King of England, a promise of succession to the English throne. He sealed this promise and strengthened his claim by marrying Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders, who traced her descent from Alfred the Great.
In 1064, Harold, thane and possible successor to Edward of England, was driven by winds to the coast of France and shipwrecked on lands held by the Count of Ponthieu.
The count thought he had stumbled upon a rich treasure, attempting to hold Harold for a considerable ransom. William interceded on Harold’s behalf, first by civil request, then by armed command, until the count reluctantly presented Harold to the Norman court.
Friendship sprang up between Harold and William. They were often seen laughing and hunting together with falcons on their wrists, or playing together in sport. After Harold’s assistance under William against the Britons, William knighted his friend, but William’s wary eyes never forgot to look forward to English succession. He considered the power that Harold wielded under Edward and realized how easy it might be for Harold to become king if he happened to be present when Edward died. William asked Harold to swear an oath to renounce all designs upon the English crown, swear his allegiance to William as his king, and receive the earldom of Wessex as a reward for his service.
Legend has it that the significance of this oath of Harold to become William’s vassal was enhanced by the concealment of a sacred relic under the table where the oath was administered. The bones of St. Edmund served to make this a super oath, a sacred obligation, and although the presence of the bones was not known to Harold, it was binding through Christendom.
William’s marriage to Matilda, in a direct affront to a papal directory prohibiting those born out of wedlock to marry into nobility, gave William another powerful ally on his eastern front –Matilda’s father, Baldwin, Count of Flanders, called “Le Debonair”.
Papal dispensations were finally granted for the marriage by Pope Nicholas II in 1059.
Meanwhile, back in England, Harold was becoming increasingly successful at conducting the government. In January of 1066, just before drawing his last breath, Edward the Confessor commended Harold as his best possible successor despite his alleged promise to William.
Harold had only a trace of royal lineage and every aspiring thane who heard of Harold’s elevation took it as an affront to his birthright. At the moment of Harold’s coronation, a strange hairy star, now known to have been a spectacular appearance of Halley’s Comet, appeared in the heavens. The feudal world buzzed with superstition. The entire structure of feudalism rested on the sanctity of oaths, and Harold had broken his oath.
Harold’s banished half-brother, Tostig, took the word of these events to Canute’s successors in Norway who were eager to revive their attempt to conquer England. Suddenly, Harold was confronted with a double invasion, one from William to the south––seeking his inheritance––and one from Tostig and Hardrada from Norway. In September of 1066, the battle began.
At Stamford Bridge, the Norsemen kept their shielded formations for a while––then, deceived by a feint, they opened their shield ramparts and advanced. This is what Harold was waiting for. Hardrada was hit by an arrow in the throat and Tostig took command.
At this point, Harold offered his brother peace, but it was refused.
Harold went on to win the Battle of Stamford Bridge, his brother paying with his life for his treason. Never again would a Scandinavian invasion seriously threaten the power of an English king. But at the moment of victory, Harold received these ominous words from a messenger: “William the Bastard has landed at Pevensey.”
William had planned his invasion with machine-like precision, yet at the last moment, they were held up from departure by a lack of winds. For six weeks no wind blew on the French coast. William’s army bickered and became restless. The invasion plans were only held together by William’s promises of spoils for the victors. Finally, the bones of St. Edmund were hauled out again and brought to the shore with much ceremony.
The next day the winds blew toward England and the great army landed unimpeded upon English soil.
Physically, William was tall, big-boned, and portly with a dignified presence. He wore his hair short-cropped and had a trim mustache. As he stepped out of the boat and onto the English shore, William tripped and fell flat on his face. Sheepishly, he turned around what some could have called a bad omen by saying: “See, I have taken England with both of my hands.”
Meanwhile, Harold and his depleted Saxons had to march two hundred miles in seven days, gathering what forces they could. On the evening of October 13, 1066, he took his position on the slope of a hill near Hastings and barred William’s march on the capital.
The Saxons were infantry, fighting with the traditional instruments of war that gave them their name, the ax and the spear. The Normans were primarily cavalry, five to six thousand Norman knights, and several thousand archers against the shields and axes of ten thousand Saxons.
As the battle began, Ivo Tallifer [Pons Taliaferro], a minstrel knight, claimed the right of first attack. He advanced up the hillside before the enemy by himself, twirling his lance and throwing his sword into the air, catching it like a juggler in front of the astonished Saxons. Finally, a song on his lips and a battle cry in his throat, he charged into the English ranks, riding into the pages of history as the first to be slain at the Battle of Hastings.
The Norman offense fell hopelessly upon the Saxon shields, huddled in mass upon the open plain. Rains of arrows took severe tolls, but the Saxons were so densely packed that the wounded could not fall to the ground.
William, borrowing from a tactic used by his opponent only days before, feinted a retreat. The deceived Saxons broke ranks and pursued the Normans. William then turned with terrible fury and cut the Saxons to pieces. Harold was pierced in the right eye by an arrow’s fall. His naked body, wrapped in a robe of purple was hidden in the rocks. The Norman invasion was victorious. October 14, 1066, became a decisive day in world history and a milestone in the history of the western world.
William and his Norman lords introduced England to a new system of land tenure based upon military service. The old Saxon lords were thrust out and Normans took their place. In 1086 William ordered a complete inquest into the wealth of the country to be written into the Domesday Book. Many a village and town of the countryside received their first mention in the important record of medieval worth.
Queen Matilda proved a good regent at Rouen but was plagued by her rebellious sons who could not wait for their father’s death to inherit their titles and lands. William’s son Robert, banished from Normandy for conspiracy and rebellion, took refuge with King Philip and was pursued by his father. Visors drawn, sword and mace in hand, father and son met in combat. Robert wounded William in the hand and would have killed him but for the interference of an Englishman who came to the aid of his King.
Matilda died in 1083, leaving William more melancholy and fierce than before. His years of war and life of quelling rebellions came to an end in 1087 at Mantes. The town caught fire during the sack and William’s horse stumbled in the burning ashes, crushing William against the pommel of the saddle. He was carried in agony to Rouen where he lay through the summer heat, fighting for his life and failing steadily. His sons William (Rufus) and Henry came to him as death neared. William Rufus was named successor to the crown. Robert could rule Normandy at last. Henry was given five thousand pounds of silver and the promise that one day he would reign over a united Norman–English nation.
On September 9, 1087, William ceased his warring.
“Edward the Confessor was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, but he had close ties with the continent: his mother was Norman, and he had spent many years in exile in Normandy. Edward had no heirs and had likely named William – who was his first cousin, once removed – his successor in 1051. But Edward also liked to dangle the succession in front of other nobles to strengthen political alliances. The last man he promised it to was Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex and the richest, most powerful man in England. Even though Harold had publicly sworn to uphold William’s claim a few years before, he was elected by the Anglo-Saxon witanagemot, or high council, and crowned after Edward’s death in January 1066. Naturally, all the other people who felt they had been promised the crown disagreed. Harold’s brother Tostig, who had been exiled, joined forces with the king of Norway to invade the north of England. King Harold’s forces were depleted by the end of the summer, both because they were running out of supplies, and because the peasants were needed to bring in the fall harvest. When Harold led his army to Yorkshire to fight Tostig’s invasion, the south was ripe for the picking.
“William of Normandy, meanwhile, had been raising support on the continent. The pope, as well as the Norman aristocracy, backed his claim to the English throne. With a force of thousands of cavalry, infantry, and archers, he crossed the English Channel and landed at Pevensey, in Sussex. From there, he went straight to Hastings, where he began construction on a castle and waited for Harold to return from the north. Harold and his infantry arrived in Hastings on October 13, and the battle began the next day. Harold’s men were well trained and the Normans didn’t make much progress breaking through their shield wall at first. When the rumors started flying that William had been killed, many Norman troops broke ranks and retreated, until William took off his helmet, showed them he was still alive, and rallied them. It was the death of Harold – traditionally believed to be by an arrow through the eye – that ultimately led to the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon army and ushered in a new era for England.
“Battles continued for the next several weeks, as William made his way to London. He negotiated with various powerful Saxons as he went, offering positions in exchange for their support. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066, although he ruled in absentia for most of his reign. He largely replaced the English aristocracy and clergy with Norman ones; he retained the judicial system and the governmental structure set up by the Anglo-Saxons but gave the offices to Normans. The vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons was relegated to the commoners, as Latin and then French became the official languages of the law, the royal court, and the government. At first, the Norman nobility never really bothered to learn Saxon English, and the result was a class distinction in the use of the languages. For instance, “cows,” “pigs,” and “sheep” were the names for the livestock that the Saxon lower classes raised on the farms. “Beef,” “pork,” and “mutton” all come from the French-speaking Norman nobility, who were served those same animals on a platter. Eventually – mostly through intermarriage – the two languages blended and became the “English” that we speak today.
“In about 1085, near the end of his reign, William commissioned a survey of all the lands and holdings in England and parts of Wales. It came to be known as the Domesday Book, and it’s the earliest existing public record in England.”
-The Writer’s Almanac, September 28, 2016