William the Conqueror – a summary

William the Conqueror, the future William I of England, was born between 1027 and 1028 at Falaise in Normandy. As the product of a brief relationship between his father, Robert, the 2nd Duke of Normandy and his mother, Herleva, the daughter of a local tanner, William came to be known as the Bastard by his contemporaries. After the death of his father in 1035, the boy William inherited the Duchy of Normandy with his great uncle acting as regent. Due to his illegitimacy, there were several Norman magnates who refused to accept the young William as the rightful heir and in 1040 they hatched a plan to murder him. The plot failed but William’s guardians were killed.

Norman Invasion

By 1045 William was old enough to take control of the Duchy and successfully crushed the first threat to his power in 1047 at Val-es-Dunes. It was after a visit to his distant cousin, King Edward the Confessor, in 1051 that William alleged he had been promised the throne of England. This was later confirmed with Harold’s Godwinson’s visit in 1064. After King Edward’s death and the coronation of Harold as Harold II in January 1066, William prepared to invade the country. The Norman army arrived at Pevensey on September 28th and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th. After his coronation on Christmas Day 1066, William spent the early years of his reign stamping out English resistance and strengthening the borders, including the building of defensive “marcher” counties along the border of Wales in 1081.

William transformed the English landscape with his ambitious castle-building programme and replaced much of the English aristocracy and Church with his fellow Normans and other Frenchmen. From 1072, William spent most of his time attending to business in Normandy and leaving the kingdom in the hands of governing regents. While away in 1075, his men put down the Revolt of the Earls, the last serious threat to William’s power. On hearing of the rebellion, William returned to England and ordered the execution of one of the ring-leaders, Waltheof. This was the only time that William resorted to using capital punishment on a member of the English aristocracy during his reign.

In his lands in France, William dealt with two major rebellions; his son, Robert Curthose, attempted to seize power in Normandy 1077 and another in Maine in 1083. Problems arose also with his half-brother, Odo of Bayeux. Accused of oppression and misgovernment in William’s absence, Odo was arrested and imprisoned for five years.

The Domesday Book

In 1086, faced with the threat of foreign invasion, William commissioned Domesday, the most famous land survey in England’s history. The reason for the survey remains a mystery but it gave him detailed information on England’s land and resources. On its completion in August 1086, William summoned his noblemen and had them swear an oath of fealty.

In the following year, involved in fighting against the French king, William was injured after falling from his horse. He was taken to St Gervase and ordered that his son, Robert, should succeed him in Normandy and, William Rufus, in England. William the Conqueror died on September 9th 1087 and was buried at the abbey church of St Etienne in Caen, Normandy.

Kaye Jones
For more about the Norman Invasion see 1066: History In An Hour
See also the Battle of HastingsEdward the Confessor and 1066: one crown, two kings and three battles.