He was born William the Bastard, illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy, but history knows him as William the Conqueror, first Norman king of England and compiler of the Domesday Book. Many historians focus on the year 1066 and the legitimacy of William’s claim to the English crown. But how did an illegitimate boy across the Channel become powerful enough to make that claim in the first place? What did he accomplish before he invaded England? What did he win before the Battle of Hastings?
France during the eleventh century was not a unified country as it was in the earlier Carolingian period or in the later Middle Ages. It was split up into lots of little areas, which I will call counties—not because they were anything like modern day counties, but because they were typically ruled by a count. Some of Normandy’s most important neighbors were Brittany, Maine, Flanders, Anjou, Blois, and Burgundy. And let us not forget the most important neighbor of all: the Isle of France, where the Capetian king Henry I had his court. (TimeRef has an excellent map that shows where each of these counties were situated in relation to Normandy.)
The first duke of Normandy, Rollo the Viking, had sworn a reluctant fealty to the king of France (a very droll story that would take too long to tell here), but there is some question as to whether the duchy of Normandy, during William’s time, was still considered a vassal of the French king.
When William’s father Robert died in 1035, on the return trip from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his only son and heir was seven years old. Robert had never taken the trouble to marry Herleva, William’s mother, but he had also never taken the trouble to marry anyone else, so there were no legitimate sons to dispute William’s claim to the dukedom of Normandy.
In the age of robber barons, a seven-year-old duke was hardly able to rule his demesne with the requisite strength of arm. William’s childhood was marked at times by fighting between his various guardians and at other times by outright anarchy. But through it all, the boy was learning, and when he came of age he took steps to teach not only Normandy but also the lands around him to fear and honor his iron sword and iron will.
|William as portrayed in|
The Bayeux Tapestry
In 1043, when the duke was about fifteen years of age, his neighbor Geoffrey Martel, the Count of Anjou, was having a spat with another neighbor, the Count of Blois. In the process, the Count of Anjou accidentally captured Alencon, one of the Norman castles. William didn’t think it was an accident. He took back Alcenon and chased off the Count of Anjou, making a bitter enemy in the process.
Guy of Burgundy presented the next problem. Realizing that Normandy was quite a nice vacation spot, Guy began to subvert various Norman barons in an attempt to take over the dukedom. William got wise to the situation and marched out to fight Guy. This was the Battle of Val-es-Dunes in 1047. In this battle, William had the support of King Henry (who had not yet developed his later fear and hatred of the Norman duke), and with this help, William carried the day and defeated Guy.
A couple years after this, William formed a marriage alliance with the mighty Baldwin of Flanders by marrying his daughter Matilda. The county of Flanders was one of the more significant territories in France, and William’s connection with Baldwin increased both his power and his prestige.
There are many interesting legends about William and his bride. Later sources record that when William asked for Matilda’s hand in marriage, she refused on the grounds of his illegitimacy. She was too high born to marry a bastard. Undeterred, William rode to her father’s domains, grabbed her by her braids, threw her to the floor, and beat her until she changed her mind. Whether the story is true or not, it indicates how William was perceived by posterity—a man who would stop at nothing in order to get his way.
William of Arques was the next French nobleman to test William’s mettle. Unhappy with his feudal obligations to Normandy, Arques renounced his vassalship and began to pillage Norman territory. Incensed by these depredations, William drove the brigand back into his castle and besieged him until he was forced to surrender. With these actions William made it abundantly clear that vassals of Normandy were not allowed to renounce their obligations.
At this point, King Henry decided William was getting too powerful and too cocksure. The chronicler from Poitiers writes thus:
The king bore it ill and considered it an affront very greatly to be avenged, that while he had the [Holy] Roman emperor as a friend and ally…and while he presided over many powerful provinces of which lords and rulers commanded troops in his army, Count William was neither his friend nor his vassal, but his enemy; and that Normandy, which had been under the kings of the Franks from the earliest times, had now been raised almost to a kingdom. None of the more prominent counts, however great their aspirations, had dared anything of this sort.
|Henry I of France|
Because of this defeat, Henry was forced to make concessions to William. The chief concession was this: that William could do anything he wanted to Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou, without fear of reprisal from the king. Extremely pleased by this green light, William began to construct a castle in the region of Maine. This county was under the governance of Geoffrey of Maine, but (in the complicated web of feudal relationships) owed homage to Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. Maine sent Martel an urgent cry for help.
Martel, joined by William of Aquitaine and Eudo of Brittany, began to attack the stonemasons at the castle site. William, who had been expecting some resistance, soon arrived with his formidable army and put the counts' collective forces to flight. Then, in the words of the chronicler, William “turned his attack against Geoffrey of Mayenne [Maine]…and in a very short time he reduced him to the point of coming into the heart of Normandy, to put his conquered hands into William’s own, swearing the fealty which a vassal owes his lord.” In this way he stole the county of Maine from Anjou and extended the reach of Normandy.
With one last burst of energy, King Henry gathered another army against William. (Geoffrey Martel, who didn’t know when to cry uncle, was part of it.) This led to the Battle of Varaville in August, 1057. As you probably expected, William defeated Henry who “realized in consternation that it would be madness to attack Normandy further.”
King Henry I died three years later, in August of 1060, and was soon accompanied into the afterlife by Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. Philip I assumed the throne in France, but by this time the lesson had been well learned: don’t mess with Normandy.
When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, the Duke William of Normandy who laid claim to the throne of England was far more than some petty nobleman across the Channel. He was a man who had risen through the force of his will and his arm, maintained and increased the lands left to him by his father, and proven himself the equal (or superior?) of the King of France.
|Scene from Bayeux Tapestry showing William's preparations to invade England|
The character that William displayed during his rise in Normandy would continue during his reign in England. His new subjects found him a harsh master in many things, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that he was “severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will.” When he forbade hunting in the king’s forest,
The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he took no notice of them; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or keep their lands….The Battle of Hastings may be the one that we remember William for, but it was all the battles before Hastings that paved the way for his victory. And while we call him the Conqueror for his exploits in England, the eleventh century counts and kings of France had good reason to call him by that name as well, a nickname born not from affection, but from the bitterness of the vanquished.
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"Medieval Sourcebook: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I." Fordham University. From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 1086, as it appears in F. A. Ogg, A Source Book of Medieval History (New York, 1907).
William of Poitiers. The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers. Trans. Marjorie Chibnall. USA: Oxford University Press, 1998.