A Brief Biography of William the Conqueror

By Tim Lambert

His Early Life

William the Conqueror was born about 1028. He was the son of Robert I Duke of Normandy. His father died in 1035. At first, William was too young to rule but as he grew older he took control of Normandy. In 1053 he married a woman named Matilda of Flanders.

Edward the Confessor, king of England died in January 1066 without leaving an heir. William Duke of Normandy claimed that Edward once promised him he would be the next king of England. He also claimed that Harold had sworn an oath to support him after Edwards’s death. If Harold ever swore such an oath it was only because he had been shipwrecked off the Norman coast and was coerced into swearing an oath.

In Saxon times the crown was not necessarily hereditary. A body of men called the Witan played a role in choosing the next king. Nobody could become king without the Witan’s support. In January 1066, after Edward’s death, the Witan chose Harold, Earl of Wessex, to be the next king. Duke William of Normandy would have to obtain the crown by force.

However William the Conqueror was not the only contestant for the throne. Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, also claimed it. He sailed to Yorkshire with 10,000 men in 300 ships. The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia attacked him but they were defeated. However, King Harold marched north with another army. He took the Norwegians by surprise and routed them at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. That ended any threat from Norway.

Meanwhile William the Conqueror built a fleet of ships to transport his men and horses across the Channel. They landed in Sussex at the end of September. the Normans then plundered Saxon farms for food. They burned Saxon houses.

The Battle of Hastings

Harold rushed to the south coast. He arrived with his men on 13 October. The Saxon army was made up of the house-carles, the king’s bodyguard. They fought on foot with axes. They wore coats of chain mail called hauberks. Kite-shaped shields protected them. However, most Saxon soldiers had no armor only axes and spears, and round shields. They fought on foot. Their normal tactic was to form a ‘shield-wall’ by standing side by side. However, the Saxons had no archers.

Norman knights fought on horseback. They wore chain mail and carried kite-shaped shields. They fought with lances, swords, and maces. Some Normans fought on foot protected by chain mail, helmets, and shields. The Normans also had a force of archers.

The battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. The Saxons were assembled on Senlac Hill. The Normans formed below them. Both armies were divided into 3 wings. William the Conqueror also divided his army into 3 ranks. At the front were archers, in the middle soldiers on foot then mounted knights. The Norman archers advanced and loosed their arrows but they had little effect. The foot soldiers advanced but they were repulsed. The mounted knights then charged but they were unable to break the Saxon shield wall.

Then the Saxons made a disastrous mistake. Foot soldiers and knights from Brittany fled. Some of the Saxons broke formation and followed them. The Normans then turned and attacked the pursuing Saxons. They annihilated them. According to a writer called William of Poitiers, the Saxons made the same mistake twice. Seeing Normans flee for a second time some men followed. The Normans turned and destroyed them.

The battle was now lost. Harold was killed with all his housecarls. Those Saxons who were able ran down the north side of Senlac Hill. William the Conqueror captured Dover and Canterbury. He then captured Winchester (a very important town in those days). Finally, William captured London and he was crowned king of England on 25 December 1066. The Saxon era was over. Now the Normans would impose their control over England.

However at first his position was by no means secure. He had only several thousand men to control a population of about 2 million. Furthermore, Swein, King of Denmark also claimed the throne of England. At first, the Normans were hated invaders and they had to hold down a resentful Saxon population.

One method the Normans used to control the Saxons was building castles. They erected a mound of earth called a motte. On top, they erected a wooden stockade. Around the bottom, they erected another stockade. The area within was called the bailey so it was called a motte and bailey castle. The Normans soon began building stone castles. In 1078 William the Conqueror began building the Tower of London.

William the Conqueror stayed in Normandy from March to December 1067. When he returned to England his first task was to put down an uprising in the Southwest. He laid siege to Exter. Eventually, the walled town surrendered on honorable terms.

Although Southern England was now under Norman control the Midlands and North were a different matter. In 1068 William marched north through Warwick and Nottingham to York. The people of York submitted to him- for the moment and William returned to London via Cambridge and York.

However, in January 1069 the people of Yorkshire and Northumberland rebelled. William the Conqueror rushed north and crushed the rebellion However the rising in the north fanned the flames of rebellion elsewhere. There were local risings in Somerset and Dorset. There was also a rebellion in the West Midlands. Furthermore, a Saxon called Edgar, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, a previous Saxon ruler led a force of Irishmen to North Devon. However local Norman commanders crushed the uprisings and drove out the Irish.

It was not over yet. In the autumn of 1069, King Sweyn of Denmark sent an expedition to England. When the Danes arrived in Yorkshire the people of Yorkshire and rose in rebellion once again. William the Conqueror marched north and captured York. The Danes withdrew from northern England.

This time William adopted a scorched earth policy. William the Conqueror was determined there would not be any more rebellions in the north. In 1069-1070 his men burned houses, crops, and tools between the Humber and Durham. They also slaughtered livestock. There followed years of famine in the north when many people starved to death. This terrible crime was called the harrying of the north and it took the north of England years to recover.

Meanwhile, the Danes sailed south. They plundered Peterborough and took the Isle of Ely as a base. Many Saxons joined the Danes. These Saxon rebels were led by a man called Hereward the Wake.

However in June 1070 William the Conqueror made a treaty with King Swein and the Danes left. The Saxons kept on fighting in the Fens but by 1071 they were forced to surrender. Hereward escaped. William was now in control of all of England.

After the Norman Conquest, almost all Saxon nobles lost their land. William confiscated it and gave it to his own followers. They held their land in return for providing soldiers for the king for so many days a year.

William the Conqueror also changed the church in England. In those days the church was rich and powerful and the king needed its support. William the Conqueror replaced senior Saxon clergymen with men loyal to himself. Lanfranc, an Italian, replaced Stigand, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury. (With the agreement of the Pope). Lanfranc then deposed Saxon bishops and abbots and replaced them with Normans.

Among the lower ranks of society, there were also changes. In the late Saxon times, the peasants were losing their freedom. This process continued under the Normans. On the other hand, slavery declined. (It died out by the middle of the 12th century).

In 1085 William the Conqueror decided to carry out a huge survey of his kingdom to find out how much wealth it contained. The result was the Domesday Book of 1086.

William the Conqueror died in 1087 and he was succeeded by his son, also called William (he is sometimes called William Rufus because of his reddish complexion). His brother Robert became Duke of Normandy.

William the Conqueror was a ruthless man. However, a writer of the time did say this about him; ‘he kept good law’. The eleventh century was a lawless age when a strong ruler who kept order was admired.

Last revised 2022