Friday, December 6, 2019

The Monarchy~ William the Conqueror

by Debra Brown

Edward the Confessor
A previous post on this blog discussed the "Dark Ages" dynasty, the House of Wessex. Edward the Confessor 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.
Bayeux Tapestry
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.

 William the Conqueror
The Witanagemot had assembled and elected young Edgar the Ætheling, the grandson and rightful heir of the Confessor, king after the death of Harold Godwinson. Edgar was never crowned, however, and a group of nobles met the invading Duke of Normandy and handed the Crown of England over, as well as young Edgar. William took him in. Edgar lived to attempt the crown, but never gain it. He was still known to be alive in 1126.

The White Tower, built by William

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.

Division of English Counties as laid out in William's Doomsday Book. 
This map highlights a southeastern circuit. 

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.

William, a calculating and brutal invader, deemed his eldest son, Robert, too generous and easygoing, and while he left his Norman holdings to him, just before his death he willed the rule of rebellious England to his second son, William Rufus. He then died a day after having been thrown from his horse, who had stepped on hot coals following his capture of the French town of Nantes. His body was looted by those who had been taking care of him, and he was left nearly naked. His body broke in half as it was being forced into a too-small coffin. He was buried in Caen. In time, his body was dug up and parts of it taken, but a thigh-bone remained to be reburied in dignity. Even this bone was disinterred and stolen during the French Revolution. The long-missed thigh-bone was found, however, and confirmed to be authentic in the 1980s, and it was finally laid to rest under a new tombstone.

A future post will discuss the remaining Norman dynasty.

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published January 26, 2012.


Debra Brown is the founder of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. She is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, a Jane Austen and Charles Dickens inspired sweet romance and mystery; and co-editor of Castles, Customs and Kings, vols. 1 & 2.


  1. Wow. That's horrible! I thought that I knew this story well, but I didn't know the final details at all. Thank you for sharing!

  2. We know from measuring the thigh bone that if it really was William's, he stood at around five foot ten inches :-)

  3. They say there was quite the stench when his body "broke in half" as they tried to jam him into the coffin. And the church caught on fire during his funeral service, and all the monks ran away....

  4. I didn't know about the end of his life and burial 'problems'. My squeamish side just shivered, but it is fascinating none the less.

    Thanks Debbie! Look forward to the next installment!

  5. Thanks for your comments and additional information! It adds to the "yuck".

  6. Actually, I think it was the English who were the administrative geniuses, it was the administrative system that THEY established which allowed the Domesday survey to be conducted.

  7. A fascinating history, thanks for sharing! You may be interested to see a building we found in Normandy, now a private house but once the castle by the sea William lived in while preparing for 1066 invasion. Pics and info here This was also the castle Matilda lived in while acting as Regent before joining William in England some months after he was crowned. Very glad to have found your blog! Fascinating.

  8. Yes Anna is right - the Domesday Book already existed, although not as one book. Taxes had been collected for many years before William invaded (and therefore tax information was needed), he merely collected the information and put it all together.
    Couple of other little points:
    When Swein Forkbeard attacked England Edward fled to Normandy with his parents, King Aethelred and Queen Emma... Emma of Normandy (hence they went to Normandy, Emma was Norman - William's Great Aunt) but Swein died and they returned to rule. Edward was only a boy at the time. However, Swein's son, Cnut (Canute) then invaded, Aethelred died and (cutting a long story short) Cnut became King. Emma then married him - which meant Edward was exiled to Normandy again in 1017. He remained there until 1042 when he returned to be King of England.
    Norman propaganda claims Edward promised William the throne - there is no evidence that he did, and by English Law he couldn't have done so. IF he had, it would have been circa 1051/2 when the Godwines were in exile. But at this time there was every opportunity for Edward to still have a son... so this claim is at best a 'misunderstanding' at worse, completely false.
    Although there is no written evidence logic and "reading between the lines" indicate that William did set sail in the summer - but was driven back by the English Fleet - Schypfyrd. William's ships were wrecked, men died - the excuse was a storm, but I'm convinced this was a cover-up. It is interesting that one of the first men William arrested was the commander of the fleet... This defeat at sea would also explain why Harold stood the army down and then went North to fight there - he thought William had been defeated so was not likely to return that year. (Harold's one under-estimation.)
    It wasn't Tostig Harold promised the 6ft of land to but Harold Hardrada King of Norway.
    Harold gathered troops in London, yes, but also from all over the South of England - he had marched North with only his elite forces (the full-time army) calling out the 'fyrds' of the Midlands - the serving men - as they rode north (yes rode - and rode back again. Very probably also fought at Stamford Bridge on horseback as well) And that figure is misleading, sorry! Two million would be the English population - the two armies were probably more or less even in numbers (7-8 thousand)
    Finally - William didn't return to France, he returned to Normandy:at that time the two were completely separate countries, although William, as a Duke, paid fealty to the French King.
    I'll be writing about my theories of the two fleets meeting in the English Channel later in the year!
    Interesting post - even if I do detest William (Yy for Harold Godwineson! LOL)


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