William the Conqueror (1027?–1087)

Encyclopædia Orbis Latini

Duke of Normandy and king of England (1066–87). Earnest and resourceful, William was not only one of the greatest of English monarchs but a pivotal figure in European history as well.

Duke of Normandy

The illegitimate son of Robert I, duke of Normandy, and Arletta, daughter of a tanner, he is sometimes called William the Bastard. He succeeded to the dukedom on his father’s death in 1035. William and his guardians were hard pressed to keep down recurrent rebellions during his minority, and at least once the young duke barely escaped death.

In 1047, with the aid of Henry I of France, he solidly established his power. William is said to have visited England in 1051 or 1052, when his cousin Edward the Confessor probably promised that William would succeed him as king of England. Despite a papal prohibition, William married Matilda, daughter of Baldwin, count of Flanders, in 1053. The union, which greatly increased the duke’s prestige, did not receive papal dispensation until 1059.

William’s growing power brought him into conflict with King Henry of France, whose invading armies he defeated in 1054 and 1058. The accession (1060) of the child Philip I of France, whose guardian was William’s father-in-law, improved his position, and in 1063 William conquered the county of Maine. Soon afterward Harold, then earl of Wessex, was shipwrecked on the French coast and was turned over to William, who apparently extracted Harold’s oath to support the duke’s interests in England.

King of England

The Norman Conquest

Upon hearing that Harold had been crowned (1066) king of England, William secured the sanction of the pope, raised an army and transport fleet, sailed for England, and defeated and slew Harold at the battle of Hastings (1066). Overcoming what little resistance remained in SE England, he led his army to London, received the city’s submission, and was crowned king on Christmas Day.

Although William immediately began to build and garrison castles around the country, he apparently hoped to maintain continuity of rule; many of the English nobility had fallen at Hastings, but most of those who survived were permitted to keep their lands for the time being. The English, however, did not so readily accept him as their king.

A series of rebellions broke out, and William suppressed them harshly, ravaging great sections of the country. Titles to the lands of the now decimated native nobility were called in and redistributed on a strictly feudal basis (see feudalism), to the king’s Norman followers. By 1072 the adherents of Edgar Atheling and their Scottish and Danish allies had been defeated and the military part of the Norman Conquest virtually completed. In the only major rebellion that came thereafter (1075), the chief rebels were Normans.

Later Reign

William undertook church reform, appointed Lanfranc archbishop of Canterbury, substituted foreign prelates for many of the English bishops, took command over the administration of church affairs, and established (1076) separate ecclesiastical courts. In 1085–86 at his orders a survey of England was taken, the results of which were embodied in the Domesday Book. By the Oath of Salisbury in 1086, William established the important precedent that loyalty to the king is superior to loyalty to any subordinate feudal lord of the kingdom. William fought with his factious son Robert II, duke of Normandy, in 1079 and quarreled intermittently with France from 1080 until his death. He invaded the French Vexin in 1087, was fatally injured in a riding accident, and died at Rouen, directing that his son Robert should succeed him in Normandy and his son William (William II) in England.


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