William the Conqueror

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© Bob Denton 2014

William, the Duke of Normandy, was not himself a Capetian though he was related to them by marriage. Born in 1028 as the illegitimate son of Robert I one of his epithets became William the Bastard, though this name was only used by his opponents and non-Normans. But of course the more famous sobriquet was William the Conqueror.

As we saw the Normans were Vikings that had been granted by West Francia the area around Rouen as an independent state in the 10th century. 

They had also routinely assaulted the Anglo-Saxons across in England and sustained these attacks from their new permanent base. They occupied the Danelaw a large swathe of the country that ran from today’s Cumbria to Yorkshire in the north, and running down the east coast to London. Wessex and English Mercia ran from today’s Cheshire down the western side of the country and right along the south coast, its eastern border roughly following today’s motorways M6/M40 and then along the Thames.

King Æthelred the Unready of England came under sustained attacks from the Danes and unable to raise his nobles to defend the realm. From 991 he had been paying tribute, or Danegeld, to avoid his land being further looted and damaged. His epithet ‘Unready’ derives from the Old English word unræd which means ill-advised or bad counsel.

In 1002 Æthelred looked for more security by marrying Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, the Duke of Normandy. Perhaps buoyed by this safety net, in that same year, he ordered a massacre of the Danish settlers. Many Danes were killed around Wessex – in Bristol, Gloucester, London and Oxford – those killed are said by some to have included the sister of king Sweyn 1 Forkbeard of Denmark.

As a result in 1003 England faced renewed attacks from the Danes. In 1013 Sweyn invaded to seek the crown of England.  During the siege of London Æthelred left to seek sanctuary for him and his family with Richard in Normandy, leaving Sweyn to rule England. Æthelred requested Richard’s help in defending his realm but early the next year Sweyn died.

King Sweyn of Denmark’s family tree – Sweyn was the son of Harald Bluetooth, whose name was used centuries later by Nokia to define a wireless communication system.  There are a number of explanations for his sobriquet Bluetooth, the most likely being that he had a very noticeable bad tooth. Alternatives suggest he wore a lot of blue, an expensive and regal colour, less interestingly is the suggestion that it was some contraction of Anglo-Saxon to Norse that meant dark chieftain.

Sweyn’s son was Cnut the Great or Canute whose life and achievements are all ignored and he is remembered only for his attempt to hold back the waves.

English noblemen arranged for Æthelred to return to England and take back his crown, conditionally. The pact he agreed stated that he would give loyalty to his nobles, there would be no recriminations for issues from his previous reign. In England this was the first time a king had ever entered in to a pact with his subjects.

Æthelred found Cnut was unready for battle and he withdraw from England in spring 1014, his forces ravaged the Danes left behind by Cnut. Cnut ventured back in summer 1015 and found that Edmund Ironside, the son of Æthelred, had rebelled against his father and had found strong support in the Danelaw because they were angry with Cnut for his flight the previous year.  However in 1016 Cnut had seized most of England; Æthelred had died in April, his son Edmund in November and Cnut gained full control of the whole country. He even married Æthelred’s widow, Emma, so that her sons by Æthelred now had Cnut as their stepfather, though they had escaped to Normandy.

When Cnut died in 1035 his realm was divided between his sons, the elder, Harthacnut, became king of Denmark, the younger, Harold Harefoot, became king of England. Harold had inherited an unstable England.

There is evidence that Robert, Duke of Normandy had considered plans to invade England for himself but he too died in 1035. When Æthelred’s son Alfred Aetheling (Alfred the Noble) travelled in 1036 to England from Normandy ostensibly to visit his recently re-widowed mother in Winchester, he was accompanied by a group of Norman bodyguards.

He was captured near Guildford he was met by Earl Godwin of Wessex who purported to be there to assist him to regain his throne. But it is believed that he was working with Harold Harefoot when he arrested Alfred and sent him to a monastery in Ely where he had him blinded. He was tended by the monks but died soon after.

Harthacnut succeeded his half-brother Harold in 1040, appointed king of England he sought to prosecute Godwin and others for the crime against his half-brother Alfred. Though Godwin insisted he was acting on Harold Harefoot’s orders.

Harthacnut was not well, tuberculosis is often cited as the underlying problem, so in 1041 he invited Alfred’s brother Edward back from exile in Normandy and they co-ruled England.  Harthacnut died in 1042 and the crown passed to Edward the Confessor.

This succession was contested for many years first by Magnus I of Norway and later his son, Harald Hardrada, because they believed they were the rightful heirs. They threatened invasion.

William I had succeeded his father in 1035 but Normandy was run by his great uncle as regent until 1042. Until 1055 his attention was taken by a series of noble uprisings which made him battle-hardened. His success both in administration and militarily meant he married well, to Matilda daughter of the Count of Flanders.

William claims that in 1051 when Edward the Confessor, who was related on William’s mother’s side, had promised him the succession as king of England. There are also some unreliable accounts about why Harold Godwinson, son of Godwin the Earl of Wessex, had been shipwrecked in northern France in 1064. The suggestion postulated by some is that he had been on his way to swear fealty to William as the selected heir.

Harold’s eldest brother Sweyn had a chequered history, being discredited several times. In 1050 he set off on a barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for his sins. On his way back in 1051 he died though the details are not recorded as to where or how.

Sweyn left one son, Hakon, who that same year had been given as a hostage to Edward the Confessor by his father, Godwin, as a pledge of his good behaviour when sent in to exile. Godwin returned with an army and attacked Edward. A group of his Norman supporters escaped to Normandy and took Hakon with them, they also took Godwin’s youngest son Wulfnoth.

Other sources suggest that Harold’s trip to France had been to achieve the release of Wulfnoth and Hakon. Whatever his purpose he was captured by the Count of Ponthieu and taken to Le Touquet. He was later handed over to William. He later joined William in fighting a battle against the Duke of Brittany. There is a tale that Harold Godwinson helped to pull two of William’s men out of quicksand during the action. He is then reported by many reports, including the Bayeux Tapestry, to have signed an oath to support William’s right to the throne.

In 1065 Harold was back in England and travelling up to the north of England in support of a rebellion against his youngest brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria. Harold succeeded in replacing Tostig with Morcar, the brother of the Earl of Mercia. It was Harold who convinced Edward the Confessor that Morcar be formally recognised.

So these events show that Harold had removed or controlled all hindrances to his claims for accession.

When Edward died childless in 1066, the Witenagemot, the assembly of Anglo-Saxon nobles, selected him to succeed. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey as Harold II at the beginning of 1066.

William made public his claim for the throne and threatened invasion; he set about building a large navy to support this amassing some six hundred ships.

William was not the only one who was annoyed by the decision. The king of Norway, Harold Sigurdsson, aka Harald Hardrada also believed he had a claim. Hardrada literally meant hard ruler or stern counsel, perhaps a result of his fighting as a mercenary for fifteen years out in eastern Europe and around the Byzantine Empire.

Back home he had spent many years to secure the Norwegian throne and a number of unsuccessful attempts to add the Danish throne. Now his expectation of the English throne had been dashed. His claims dated back to an agreement made in 1038 between the then Danish rulers of England.

Tostig had sought the support of others to reclaim his title and more. Finally he and Harald Hardrada allied to invade England. They believed that they would prosper from the fact that Harold Godwinson was tangled in the south waiting to defend William’s invasion.

Tostig had been supplied a fleet by Baldwin of Flanders and used it to harass the Isle of Wight and the south coast, but found no groundswell of support gathering for him. He travelled up the east coast and again found little interest in his claim. He moved on to Scotland where he awaited Harald.

Harald travelled to the Orkney and Shetland isles, both within his Norwegian realm to gather a force. He then travelled to Scotland to see king Malcolm II and gain a force of Scottish warriors to his cause. He assembled as many as three hundred long ships and 10,000 to 15,000 men for the enterprise. Tostig’s contribution was modest in comparison.

They met up at Tynemouth and started south, plundering the east coast and at one point burning Scarborough when the town failed to surrender. Morcar and Eric, the Mercian leader, met with them at the battle of Fulford, just outside York, which the invaders proved victorious.

York surrendered to Harald and the invaders moved to garrison it with just two-thirds of their numbers and lightly armed and armoured, expecting to meet compliant citizens who had already agreed their surrender.

But Harold Godwinson had arrived at Stamford Bridge and outnumbered them. There was no surprise because the English force was constrained in crossing the bridge, apparently one Dane was able to hold them off for a period. More to the point the invaders were given the time to adopt a defensive shield formation.

The greater numbers and better armour told and in the battle Harald, without armour, was killed by an arrow to the throat; Tostig was killed in the battle too. The Dane’s reserve force arrived late and tired, their leader was killed as they were making good progress in to the English lines, his death saw them withdraw. The survivors including Harald’s son were allowed to leave, but their numbers filled fewer than twenty-five long boats.

In the meantime William of Normandy had progressed with his plans politically. He had sought and achieved the support of Pope Alexander II for his venture, though some sources suggest this was given after the invasion was successful. . Some sources suggest he also had pledges of support from Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and King Sweyn II of Denmark.

Just as Harold II had dealt with his problem in the north, William landed two days later near Hastings and set up his camp.  He had transported not just Normans but Bretons and a host of other mercenaries from across Europe.

While they did foray in to England William wanted the water at his back so that he maintained his link back to Normandy while he waited for Harold to arrive.

Harold II had left a large portion of his forces in the north but with the rest he marched the 250 miles (400 kms) south and was able to confront William just sixteen days later after his landing. The size of the two forces was similar, around 7,000 men on each side.

Harold took a strong defensive location on a hill and drew out the Norman force to attack him. The battle lasted all day. Harold had one of the strongest infantry in Europe, but William’s force had several thousand cavalrymen and archers.

It was hand-to-hand stuff, during the battle William had three horses killed from under him, on one occasion his force feared he had been killed.  He rode around with his helmet raised to reassure them.

The first attacks on the English lines were repelled with heavy losses on the Norman side. One part of the English force left the defensive position to pursue a Breton force that was in retreat but were cut down by cavalry.

William therefore simulated several retreats to try to achieve the same outcome. Most sources agree that the death of Harold was the significant moment of the battle, his army collapsed.

But that was not the end of the claim for the throne. William was intent on securing his lines of supply and attacked Dover and Canterbury, then a group were despatched to Winchester to seize the royal treasury. During this pause the English priests crowned Edgar the Ætheling as king, though he commanded little support.

But William now marched on London and wreaked havoc along the Thames valley until Edgar the Ætheling, Morcar, Edwin and Archbishop Ealdred all submitted to his authority. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.

William needed to settle matters for his realm to be secure. He quickly confirmed Edwin of Mercia, Morcar of Northumbria and Waltheof of Northampton in their earldoms and lands. Waltheof married one of William’s nieces and a marriage between Edwin and one of William’s daughters was also mooted. Though Harold’s family members and others that had met with William at Hastings had their lands confiscated. He set about creating a Norman hierarchy administratively and militarily.

The following March William returned home but took care to take with him Edgar, Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof so that his position was secure. His brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, was left in charge of England.

In 1068 Edwin and Morcar again rebelled and William marched to subdue them, building castles at Warwick, Nottingham and York as he went. On his return he ordered castles to be built and Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge. Each castle was established with one of his supporters remaining ther in charge of the locality. His campaign to build commanding castles and churches would be the most evident sign of their power.

In 1069 Edgar the Ætheling rebelled, backed by Danes, and attacked York, William returned to York and built another castle there but failed to capture the rebel. He paid off the Danes then marched across the Pennines to build castles at Chester and Stafford.

In 1070 Papal legates arrived at Winchester and crowned William ceremonially. The king and the legates set about reforming the English church which involved replacing most senior churchmen with Normans. But he then had to depart for the north where he carried out a burnt-earth policy in Mercia and Northumberland, sacking churches and monasteries, destroying agricultural land; the latter led to a nine-year famine in the region.

By 1072 William had invaded Scotland and signed the Treaty of Abernethy with its king, he put down a rebellion by the Earls in 1075 and then invaded Wales in 1081, setting up a defensive series of counties along its border. By 1086 he was so confidently in control that he ordered the Domesday Book census.

However much of his last fifteen years William was occupied back in Normandy and enjoined battles with the French. He left England to be run by a series of regents, many being churchmen.

He died in 1087 falling from a horse during one of his campaigns against the French; he was buried in Caen. The actual burial was bizarre in that his corpse proved too big for the tomb, when officials crammed it in to the available space the corpse burst and a foul smell permeated through the church.

His sons inherited his lands divided between Robert who received Normandy and William Rufus was named to succeed him in England.

Forward to Louis VI and VII – Back to 3 – Early Monarchy
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014