William the Conqueror, First Norman King of England, Dies

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William the Conqueror, First Norman King of England, Dies

William the Conqueror (center), with his two half-brothers:
Bishop Odo (left) and Robert, Count of Mortain (right)
Image from Bayeux Tapestry, on display at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, France
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 9, 1087

For this week's journey into military history, the spotlight falls on the man which most English-speaking people know by his cognomen of "the Conqueror" or the "the Bastard." William Duke of Normandy – and later King William the First of England.


William was born the illegitimate son of Robert I Duke of Normandy, in the town of Falaise probably near the end of the year 1028. His father never married his mother; there is some evidence indicating that his mother's father was either a tanner or an embalmer.

William became the Duke of Normandy in 1035, after his father died while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For the next 12 years, the new duke fought politically and on the battlefield to consolidate his position as the leader of the Norman duchy. On a few occasions, William even opposed the French king to preserve his ducal position.

By 1060, Duke William had defeated all opposition, and began establishing his bona fides as a strong ruler. Sometime in either 1051 or 1052 he married Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. The couple remained married until her death in 1081, and they produced four sons and six daughters. [Most historians consider the marriage a success…] Apparently William sired no illegitimate children, rather unusual for nobility of the time period.

No authentic portraits of William have come to light, but he is described as possessing a burly and robust appearance, with a guttural voice. He enjoyed excellent health until old age, although he became quite fat in later life. The Duke had great stamina, and was strong enough to draw bows that others were unable to pull. One historian described him as without equal as a fighter and as a horseman. Examination of William's femur – the only bone to survive when the rest of his remains were destroyed in 1562 – showed he was approximately 5 feet, 10 inches in height, quite tall for the time.

Claim to the Throne of England

The exact chronology of William's claim to the English crown are murky, at best. In 1051 the childless King Edward the Confessor of England appears to have chosen William as his successor to the English throne, as Edward had no issue from his chaste marriage. William was the grandson of Edward's maternal uncle, Richard II, Duke of Normandy (996-1025). [During the time period of Danish rule of England (1014-1042), Edward – who was the last surviving son of King Ǣthelred Unraed – the "poorly-counseled" – spent this time exiled in Normandy, which was probably the source of his close friendship with Normans.]

One of Edward's supporters in his early reign was Godwin Earl of Wessex. However, King Edward and Earl Godwin had a falling out, and in 1051 Godwin and his family were sent into exile. It is likely that Duke William was offered the throne at this time. However, the rift between Edward and Godwin was quickly healed, and the Godwin family returned to England in 1052.

As a result, Earl Godwin probably reminded King Edward of Godwin's support early in the monarch's reign, for which the king likely recognized Earl Godwin as his eventual successor. [In addition, King Edward's wife Edith was Godwin's daughter, further leverage probably used by the earl.] However, Earl Godwin died of an apparent stroke at a royal banquet in Winchester in April of 1053. Godwin was succeeded as earl by his son Harold Godwinson.

Between 1053 and 1065, Harold became the focus of English opposition to the Norman influence that still lingered. Earl Harold also fought two campaigns in Wales, defeating the rugged people of that land.

As the year 1065 was drawing to a close, the aged King Edward became ill and fell into a coma. Just after the beginning of 1066, Earl Harold came to Edward's residence to see the dying king. At some point on January 5, the king regained consciousness, and indicated that he wished Harold to succeed him as England's ruler. Shortly afterward, Edward the Confessor died.

Harold Godwinson is crowned king of England, January 1066; Image from the Bayeux Tapestry; image courtesy of http://www.ehow.co.uk/info_7864687_bayeux-tapestry-kids.html
Harold Godwinson is crowned king of England, January 1066
Image from the Bayeux Tapestry; image courtesy of

[This whole controversy over who had the best claim to the English throne ignores one simple point: an English monarch did not have the total power to determine who succeeded him. That power rested with the Witenagemot, an advisor assembly of the English ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic and secular. When a monarch died or went into exile, the Witenagemot assembled to proclaim a successor. The assembly could choose a person favored by the king, but it was no guarantee he would be approved by the Witenagemot.]

William Reacts (Badly!), Plans An Invasion

Early in January of 1066, Duke William received the news that Harold Godwinson had been crowned king of England on January 6. The Norman duke's reaction to this news is not recorded in any chronicle, but we can imagine that it was not printable. Within days of receiving the bad news, William began his plans to take what he felt was rightly his.

One of his first directives was the construction of an invasion fleet, said to total 700 warships and transports. [If we believe the Bayeux Tapestry, the vessels built closely resembled Viking ships, not unusual as the Normans were only four or five generations removed from when Norsemen were first allowed to settle in the area now known as Normandy.] William also began gathering supplies, including weapons, armor, and horses. He also began collecting and hiring soldiers for the invasion.

Norman transports sailing to England, September 1066; Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry; Image courtesy of http://www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/d-day/the-bayeux-tapestry-in-portsmouth
Norman transports sailing to England, September 1066
Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry; Image courtesy of

William's preparations took up the majority of the spring and summer of 1066. In England, King Harold had called up the Saxon fyrd, the militia that served for a limited time. When the Norman invasion did not come by early September, Harold released the fyrd from its obligation, sending the men home to take in the harvest. Unfortunately, about three weeks later, the Norman invasion force – which had been delayed by contrary winds – landed on the southern shore of England.

King Harold reacted quickly, marching from York in northern England (where he had repelled an invasion from Norway by King Harald Hardraada "the Ruthless"), and collected more troops as he came south. By October 13, Godwinson had marched his rapidly collected army near the town of Hastings, effectively throwing down the gauntlet to Duke William and saying, "You want the throne of England? Come and take it!"

The next day William and his nobles and soldiers fought an all-day battle, King Harold Godwinson died, and his army was scattered. Over the next ten weeks, William and his army marched through the countryside of southern England; burning and pillaging, essentially proving he was now in charge and the Anglo-Saxons should recognize the fact. Finally, on Christmas Day of 1066, William Duke of Normandy was declared the King of England by the Witenagemot and crowned in Westminster Abbey.

Scene of the battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry
Scene of the battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry

William Rules England

Over the next twenty years, King Willian consolidated his hold on his new realm, weather several revolts, as well as invasions or threats of invasions. He traveled widely to administer justice, often appointing deputies do similar duties in his absence. The governmental apparatus of England was more complex than that of Normandy, so William pretty much left it alone to continue to function. William also continued a land tax, which was called the danegeld. It was the former tax that was collected and used to pay protection money to the Northmen in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

At Christmas 1085, William ordered the compilation of a survey of the landholdings held by himself and by his vassals throughout the kingdom, organized by counties. It resulted in a work now known as the Domesday Book. The listing for each county gives the holdings of each landholder, grouped by owners. The listings describe the holding, who owned the land before the Conquest, its value, what the tax assessment was, and usually the number of peasants, ploughs, and any other resources the holding had. Towns were listed separately. All the English counties south of the River Tees and River Ribble are included, and the whole work seems to have been mostly completed by August 1, 1086, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that William received the results. William's exact motivation in ordering the survey is unclear, but it probably had several purposes, such as making a record of feudal obligations and justifying increased taxation.

William also sponsored the construction of castles throughout the country. These strongpoints were to be used by Norman forces in case of revolts or other unrest. Many of these castles still exist, the most famous being the Tower of London.

William's Death and Burial

In 1087, William was in Normandy to tend to administrative affairs. He also led an attack against French territory, as the King of France and William's eldest son Robert Curthose were allied in stirring up trouble in Normandy. William led his forces in capturing the city of Mantes. However, during that action, historians state that William sustained some internal injury. One chronicle says William's horse was skittish and threw him against the pommel of his saddle. William died of his internal injuries on September 9, 1087.

It was several weeks before his funeral arrangements were complete. William had left instructions that he was to be buried in a tomb in the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, which he had founded in 1063. The "highlight" of the burial ceremony occurred when William's corpse was being lowered into the tomb. It was discovered that the Conqueror's body was too large for the pre-designed sarcophagus. [This was probably due to his having gained much weight in his later life, and likely from the corruption of the corpse, after weeks awaiting burial.] When servants tried forcing the body into the insufficient space, it burst open and released a disgusting odor into the church, causing many of the courtiers and clergy to stampede out of the church.

William's grave in front of altar in the Abbaye aux Hommes, Caen, France
William's grave in front of altar in the Abbaye aux Hommes, Caen, France

Footnote #1: William's grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a Latin inscription dating from the early 19th century. The tomb has been disturbed several times since 1087, the first time in 1522 when the grave was opened on orders from the papacy. The intact body was restored to the tomb at that time, but in 1562, during the French Wars of Religion, the grave was reopened and the bones scattered and lost, with the exception of one thigh bone. This lone relic was reburied in 1642 with a new marker, which was replaced 100 years later with a more elaborate monument. This tomb was again destroyed during the French Revolution, but was eventually replaced with the current marker.

Footnote #2: The inscription on William's gravestone says, "Here is buried, [the] Invincible William [the] Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, King of England, Founder of this House [the abbey], Died in the Year 1087."

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