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William the Conqueror |
The birth of the Norman French

William the Conqueror is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 111, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

A descendant of the Vikings, Duke William seized control of England, but he died regretting his ‘rivers of blood’ and his burial was macabre

William the Conqueror - The birth of the Norman French

William the Conqueror - The birth of the Norman French
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, now housed in a modern museum in Bayeux, France. A group of Anglo-Saxons on a hill make a bold defense; two of their injured tumble down.

The battle-hardened barons of Normandy must have had a few doubts in 1035 when their duke, Robert the Devil, presented them with his son and heir. How could their stormy duchy be governed by an eight-year-old boy, frail and sickly, the bastard son of a lowly tanner’s daughter?1 A century earlier, Viking freebooters had settled in the coastal province, and their descendants, though by now half-Frankish, Christian and French-speaking, had lost none of their ancestral ferocity. And Duke Robert insisted that William must rule. “He is little,” Robert told his assembled chieftains, “but he will grow, and–if God please–he will mend.” And so he did. William the Conqueror would seize and rule England, too, becoming in his era the most famed champion of Christendom’s most effective fighting breed, the Normans.

Robert the Devil, after securing recognition for his son, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but died along the way. His overlord, Henry I of France, brought William up in his own court. The prince devoured logic, geography, arithmetic and the classical languages, becoming brilliant at chess and gambling. He was also lucky, surviving many assassination attempts in his youth. In 1047, for example, a killer plunged a knife into a friend sleeping beside the young duke, but William himself remained unharmed.

Well-muscled, he also proved adept with the heavy weapons of the time. Legend claims that no other man could draw the great bow he carried into battle. He was equally strong of purpose. When he took control of his duchy, his immediate demand for complete obedience and administrative order triggered a baronial rebellion, but to his aid again came King Henry, in personal command of thousands of troops.

Across the English Channel (which the French prefer to call “La Manche,” meaning “the Sleeve”), the lineage of Alfred the Great was about to fail. Edward the Confessor, pious and childless, had spent much time with William in their younger days, hunting and talking for hours on end. William claimed, without proof, that his close friend had promised him the English succession. The other major royal contender was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. By a twist of fate, Harold in his own youth had been shipwrecked on the Norman coast, and become the unwilling guest of its duke. To obtain his release, the prisoner may or may not have promised support for William’s claim to the English throne.

When Edward died on January 5, 1066, Harold was immediately crowned at Westminster Abbey (which had itself been consecrated just eight days earlier). He was supposedly Edward’s choice, and in any case, the powerful house of Wessex controlled four great fiefdoms. But hot-tempered William summoned his barons to a council of war and petitioned the pope for approval of his own claim. Pope Alexander II, over the reported opposition of some of the cardinals, blessed an invasion and consecrated a banner to be carried by the Norman army. (Blatant politics, say Alexander’s critics; the Normans in Italy were allies of the papacy. Not so, say Alexander’s defenders. The pope sought the ouster of the current archbishop of Canterbury, a notorious trader in church offices.)

By now, William had transformed Normandy into a realm of remarkable efficiency. Viking fashion, he organized his English campaign as a business enterprise, the prospect of loot and lands drawing volunteers from as far away as Italy and Denmark. Norman shipbuilders produced up to three thousand watercraft, led by Viking-style warships with dragon prows. The fleet sailed on September 27, 1066, with twenty-five thousand men on board, prompting the English to flock into churches and pray for deliverance.

But Harold II simultaneously faced another threat, direct from the Viking homelands. His disgruntled brother Tostig, Earl of Northumberland, had decided to support a royal claim from the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”). This former commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard (see sidebar page 146) landed with an army of nine thousand in northeastern England. Harold, vowing to cede to Hardrada no more than “seven feet of good English earth” (i.e., for his burial), met them in battle at Stamford Bridge, near York, on September 25. Hardrada was killed; only twenty-seven ships from the Viking fleet of three hundred survived to return home.

Just three days later, the Norman fleet appeared off England’s south coast. William ordered his troops to plunder and burn, remarking, “Harold will not stand by to see the England of the Saxons lighted by Norman firebrands.” The Saxon monarch and his housecarls, his personal troops, slogged southward, gathering the southern militia as they marched. On October 14, the English assembled on Senlac Ridge, near the town of Hastings. The well-armored, orderly Normans advanced across marshes and meadows to the attack.

The invaders fared poorly at first, even fearing at one point that William himself had fallen. But then they feigned a retreat, prompting the less disciplined Saxon militia to break ranks and pursue them. The Norman duke rallied his troops for a counterattack, his mounted knights making bloody work of the Saxon infantry in more open country. Volleys of arrows decimated the English ranks, and Harold II reportedly died instantly when a shaft pierced his eye. His kinsmen and housecarls fought a heroic last stand, but as the day faded, the Battle of Hastings was lost.

With its leader dead, England surrendered, and on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey, the archbishop of York placed his country’s crown on the head of the Norman duke. “I have conquered,” declared William I. For the next two centuries, England’s rulers would speak French.2 The king kept ninety-five hundred manors (estates) for himself, and parceled out many others among his supporters. Powerful forts, including the Tower of London, sprang up to guard strategic locations, and Saxon resistance was stifled by unremitting butchery. The thoroughness of Norman administration was exemplified by the Domesday Book, a detailed census of population, land and goods, which facilitated taxes on the conquered population. Another tribute to Norman organization is the fact that England has never again suffered foreign conquest.

The church in England, still reeling from the Viking depredation, was rife with “pluralism, simony, lax observance of the canons, contented ignorance, worldliness in every aspect,” writes British historian Sir Charles Oman (History of England Before the Norman Conquest). The Normans brought with them the reform spirit of Cluny and the great Frankish monasteries. Lanfranc, an Italian-born monk, theologian and former abbot in Normandy, became archbishop of Canterbury, and by 1070 only two Saxon bishops remained in office. Separate secular and religious courts were established, and Archbishop Lanfranc ran the government as William’s regent when the king was absent (even bloodily squashing a Saxon revolt). Pope Gregory VII wrote approvingly that William, “though in certain respects not as religious as we would wish, still shows himself more acceptable than other kings…. He neither destroys nor sells the churches of God, and he binds priests by oath to dismiss their wives.”

Yet the victor was not entirely blessed. The new French king, Philip, is said to have scoffed that William had grown so fat he looked pregnant. When war ensued, William fell in 1087, during an assault on the town of Mantes. The chronicler Ordericus Vitalis records the king’s dying words: “I tremble, my friends, when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience, and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was bred to arms from my childhood, and am stained from the rivers of blood I have shed…. It is out of my power to count all the injuries which I have caused.”

He plainly knew that he would not be fondly remembered. In their rush to safeguard their own interests, his sons left his body unburied. Servants stripped the corpse and dumped it naked on the floor. A dispute over payment for his burial ground delayed the burial, and an arm fell off the decomposing body as it was lowered into the grave. Some five hundred years later, a party of Calvinists destroyed his tomb. A substantial new monument was built, and what could be found of William’s remains–a single thighbone–was reinterred. Even this monument was destroyed in the French Revolution. The remains of England’s last conqueror now rests beneath a simple stone slab in a church at Caen.

This is the end of the William the Conqueror category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page , of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about William the Conqueror from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at