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William the Conqueror of England - Famous and Infamous Rulers
1921    Dibyendu Banerjee    20/05/2018

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror, born in 1028 as William I, was the first Norman King of England, reigning from 1066 till his death in 1088. Born in Falaise Castle, in the region of Normandy, France, he was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy and his mistress Herleve, the daughter of Fullbert, a tanner of Falaise. It is said that, Duke Robert was attracted by Herleve while she was washing her linen in the castle moat. As they never married, William was often referred as 'William the Bastard' by his enemies.

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While returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Robert died in 1035 and as his only surviving heir, William became the new Duke of Normandy at a tender age of 8. Violence and corruption plagued his early reign, as the feudal barons wanted to oust him from power, taking advantage of his early age and citing the reason of his illegitimate birth. Even, there was a plan in1040, to kill the young duke. William was narrowly escaped, but lost some of his guards and his adviser, Gilbert of Brionne. With the help of King Henry I of France, William managed to survive those early years. In 1047, the young duke, still in his teens, was knighted by King Henry I of France. The lords in western Normandy again rebelled against him in 1047 and failed again, but these two incidents taught William not to trust anybody.

By 1064, William became a capable ruler and expanded his territory, as he conquered Brittany and Maine, the two neighbouring provinces.

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It is said that, Edward the Confessor, the King of England, promised William the succession to the English throne, as he was childless. This is not unlikely, as King Edward's mother was a sister of William's grandfather. However, when Edward died in 1066, his brother-in-law and one of the most powerful of the English lords, Harold Godwinson claimed the throne of England as King Harold II. The Witan, a council of English lords that commonly took part in deciding succession, also chose Harold to succeed and he was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

William immediately protested Harold's claim and started for England with his army. In the meantime, Tostig Godwinson, brother of the newly chosen English King Harold Godwinson, pledged his allegiance to Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway and invited him to claim the English throne. Accordingly, he entered Northern England in the month of September 1066. Though initially successful, the English army under Harold Godwinson completely defeated the combined army of Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson on September 25, in the battle of Stamford Bridge and killed both of them. Three days after that battle, William landed in England.

The Battle of Hastings by Frank W Wilkin
The Battle of Hastings by Frank W Wilkin

On 27 September the William's fleet set sail for England, and arrived at Pevensey, on the coast of East Sussex, the following day. On the other hand, Harold's army marched 386 km to intercept William. On 14th October, the two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, at Senlac Hill, close by Hastings and Harold was defeated and killed after nine hours of hard fighting. It is a popular belief that Harold died by an arrow to the eye. However, according to a Norman account of the battle, written shortly after the battle, Harold was killed by four Knights, probably including Duke William, and his body was brutally dismembered.

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As King Harold was killed along with his two brothers in the Battle of Hastings, and there were none to claim the throne, William the Conqueror was crowned as the first Norman king of England, in Westminster Abbey on the Christmas Day, 1066, and the Anglo-Saxon phase of English history came to an end. Gradually, with the support of the court, French became the language of the king's court and gradually it was blended with the Anglo-Saxon tongue to give birth to the modern English language.

The Coronation of William the Conqueror by Severino Baraldi
The Coronation of William the Conqueror by Severino Baraldi

During the next five years, William had to deal with several revolts, which he used as an excuse to confiscate English land and distributed the same among his Norman followers, and thus the unique feudal system was introduced in the country. Ultimately, the Normans replaced the entire Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. However, most of the England's institutions were retained. William was sincerely interested about the population and property of his new country and ordered a detailed census to be done about it. This invaluable information was compiled in 'The Domesday Book'. Apart from the construction of several castles, his reign in England was marked by the settling of new Norman nobility in the country, and change in the composition of the English clergy.

A bronze bust of William the Conqueror - Berkhamsted Castle
A bronze bust of William the Conqueror - Berkhamsted Castle

In his personal life, William was a happy family man. In 1053, he married Matilda of Flanders, a granddaughter of France's King Robert II. It is said that, when William proposed Matilda through his representative, Matilda refused to marry him, as she was too high born to consider marrying a bastard. According to legend, Matilda's reason for refusal made William furious. He rode to her place all alone and before leaving the place, dragged Matilda off her horse by her long braids, and threw her on the ground in front of her attendants. Matilda was moved by his courage and decided to marry none but William. In their conjugal life, they had ten children, of whom seven survived. His marriage to Matilda appears to have been quite affectionate, and there are no signs that he was unfaithful to her, which is quite unusual in any medieval monarch.

Matilda of Flanders
Matilda of Flanders

William had a strong sense of self respect and could not tolerate any disrespect towards his mother. During the late 1040s or early 1050s, when he sieged Alencon, on the border of Normandy, residents are said to have hung animal hides on their walls, to ridicule him for being the grandson of a tanner. To avenge the honour of his mother, he had their hands and feet cut off.

Unfortunately, no authentic portrait of William has been found. According to some written descriptions, he had a strong and robust physic with a guttural voice. Till his death, he enjoyed good health. He was described as a good fighter, as well as a horseman. His main hobby appears to have been hunting. Examination of William's femur revealed, he had a height of approximately 5 feet 10 inches.

William died on 9 September 1087, while leading a campaign in northern France. It is said that, while seizing Mantes, his horse reared up suddenly, throwing him against his saddle pommel so forcefully that his intestines ruptured. Consequently an infection set in. In serious condition he was taken to the Priory of Saint Gervase in Rouen, where he died. William was buried in Caen. Unfortunately, the allotted stone coffin proved to be too small for his body and when the attendants pushed on his abdomen to force the body into the coffin, it burst, spreading a disgusting odour throughout the church.

William's grave at Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen
William's grave at Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen

Since 1087, the tomb of William has been disturbed several times, the first time in 1522, when the grave was opened by order from the office of the Pope. The grave was reopened again in 1562, during the French Wars of Religion. That time, the bones were scattered and lost, with the exception of only one thigh bone. That lone remain was reburied in 1642 with a new marker, which was replaced 100 years later with a more elaborate monument. Ridiculously, that tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution, but was subsequently replaced with the current marker.

Column at the site of the Battle of Val-es-Dunes
Column at the site of the Battle of Val-es-Dunes

After the unfortunate death of William I in 1087, his son, William Rufus, became William II, the second Norman king of England.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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