House of Wessex. Edward the Confessor, pictured at right, had once fled to Normandy with his parents. He later put Norman friends in high places in England, and promised that his cousin, William, Duke of Normandy, would succeed him- according to William. Edward, though, changed his decision upon his deathbed, and he now left the throne to Harold Godwinson, who had no blood ties to the succession. William was having none of that, and made plans to invade England. Winds did not permit the duke to sail across when he had first intended to do so, and he left later, but this turned out to be in his favor.
Despite realizing that William was finally on his way, Harold II was forced to pull away from southern England to ward off an attack in the north by even more powerful forces, his own brother Tostig along with the King of Norway. When Harold II was asked by Tostig how much land he was prepared to yield to the King, he replied, "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men." Harold successfully routed that attack at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Only three days later, the Normans landed at Pevensey the 28th of September, 1066. Harold headed south, obtained fresh troops in London and set off to meet the advancing Duke. William had but seven thousand men to England's two million. They met six miles north of Hastings. Though Harold II had the upper hand much of the day, when the ten-hour battle ended, he and his brothers lay dead. He was the last monarch of England to be defeated by a foreign invader. William went on to devastate a large circle of land to establish his authority and then swept into London to claim the throne.
Left: William the Conqueror.
William had some experience from his duchy in Normandy, and set about organizing England his way. He took estates away from English owners, kept much for himself and gave some to his supporters from France. These nobles (who, do not forget, also had interests in France) built castles, following the lead of William with his start on the Tower of London, to protect themselves from the angry English. Over the next 600 years, this trend continued and some 2,000 castles appeared. The French barons divided their land into fiefs and handed them out to vassals who organized men under them, knights, for military service to the king.
William was an administrative genius, and commissioned a national survey of belongings- his boring Domesday Book records the possessions of all his subjects for taxation purposes. It was said that there was "not an ox, cow or swine that was not set down in the writ". William also took firm action against criminals, even castrating rapists. There was, therefore, less crime in the country under his rule. He also introduced trial by jury. However, he was far from just. He was an avid deer hunter, and he cleared the New Forest of all its buildings and inhabitants to create game reserves for himself. His forests came to cover a third of English land. Poachers were killed or mutilated. When rebellions reared he reacted firmly, even burning the entire villages and their crops. Much of Northern England was devastated, its economy ruined for decades after a rebellion. Thus he kept firm control. He spent much of his time in France, as did his new English knights and English tax money. He was, after all, first and foremost, the Duke of Normandy.
William was the illegitimate son of Norman Duke Robert I and a tanner's daughter. Though he succeeded to his father's duchy, while still a child, he had grown up with the nickname William the Bastard. Perhaps this is why the great conqueror was such a faithful and devoted husband to Matilda of Flanders, by whom he had four sons and five daughters.
The former English ruling class disappeared when William conquered England, and French speech and customs thereafter heavily influenced the English. French fashions, manners, art and architecture made a permanent mark. He build great cathedrals, which were to give the impression that he was, indeed, ordained by God to rule England.
A future post will discuss the remaining Norman dynasty.
Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, a Jane Austen and Charles Dickens inspired sweet romance and mystery, currently a best-seller on Amazon.