Kings and Queens of England

William I (The Conqueror) 1066 - 1087

Born: 1027

Died: September 9, 1087

Parents: Robert I, Duke of Normandy and Herleva of Falasia

Significant Siblings: none

Spouse: Mathilda (daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders)

Significant Offspring: Robert, William Rufus, Henry, and Adela

Contemporaries: Edward the Confessor (King of England, 1047-1066); Harold Godwinson (King of England, 1066); Henry I (King of France, 1031-1060); Philip I (King of France, 1060-1108); Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085); Lanfranc (Archbishop of Canterbury)

William, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, spent his first six years with his mother in Falaise and received the duchy of Normandy upon his father's death in 1035. A council consisting of noblemen and William's appointed guardians ruled Normandy but ducal authority waned under the Normans' violent nature and the province was wracked with assassination and revolt for twelve years. In 1047, William reasserted himself in the eastern Norman regions and, with the aid of France's King Henry I, crushed the rebelling barons. He spent the next several years consolidating his strength on the continent through marriage, diplomacy, war and savage intimidation. By 1066, Normandy was in a position of virtual independence from William's feudal lord, Henry I of France and the disputed succession in England offered William an opportunity for invasion.

Edward the Confessor attempted to gain Norman support while fighting with his father-in-law, Earl Godwin, by purportedly promising the throne to William in 1051. (This was either a false claim by William or a hollow promise from Edward; at that time, the kingship was not necessarily hereditary but was appointed by the witan, a council of clergy and barons.) Before his death in 1066, however, Edward reconciled with Godwin, and the witan agreed to Godwin's son, Harold, as heir to the crown - after the recent Danish kings, the members of the council were anxious to keep the monarchy in Anglo-Saxon hands. William was enraged and immediately prepared to invade, insisting that Harold had sworn allegiance to him in 1064. Prepared for battle in August 1066, ill winds throughout August and most of September prohibited him crossing the English Channel. This turned out to be advantageous for William, however, as Harold Godwinson awaited William's pending arrival on England's south shores, Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway, invaded England from the north. Harold Godwinson's forces marched north to defeat the Norse at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066. Two days after the battle, William landed unopposed at Pevensey and spent the next two weeks pillaging the area and strengthening his position on the beachhead. The victorious Harold, in an attempt to solidify his kingship, took the fight south to William and the Normans on October 14, 1066 at Hastings. After hours of holding firm against the Normans, the tired English forces finally succumbed to the onslaught. Harold and his brothers died fighting in the Hastings battle, removing any further organized Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Normans. The earls and bishops of the witan hesitated in supporting William, but soon submitted and crowned him William I on Christmas Day 1066. The kingdom was immediately besieged by minor uprisings, each one individually and ruthlessly crushed by the Normans, until the whole of England was conquered and united in 1072. William punished rebels by confiscating their lands and allocating them to the Normans. Uprisings in the northern counties near York were quelled by an artificial famine brought about by Norman destruction of food caches and farming implements.

The arrival and conquest of William and the Normans radically altered the course of English history. Rather than attempt a wholesale replacement of Anglo-Saxon law, William fused continental practices with native custom. By disenfranchising Anglo-Saxon landowners, he instituted a brand of feudalism in England that strengthened the monarchy. Villages and manors were given a large degree of autonomy in local affairs in return for military service and monetary payments. The Anglo-Saxon office of sheriff was greatly enhanced: sheriffs arbitrated legal cases in the shire courts on behalf of the king, extracted tax payments and were generally responsible for keeping the peace. "The Domesday Book" was commissioned in 1085 as a survey of land ownership to assess property and establish a tax base. Within the regions covered by the Domesday survey, the dominance of the Norman king and his nobility are revealed: only two Anglo-Saxon barons that held lands before 1066 retained those lands twenty years later. All landowners were summoned to pay homage to William in 1086. William imported an Italian, Lanfranc, to take the position of Archbishop of Canterbury; Lanfranc reorganized the English Church, establishing separate Church courts to deal with infractions of Canon law. Although he began the invasion with papal support, William refused to let the church dictate policy within English and Norman borders.

He died as he had lived: an inveterate warrior. He died September 9, 1087 from complications of a wound he received in a siege on the town of Mantes.

"The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" gave a favorable review of William's twenty-one year reign, but added, "His anxiety for money is the only thing on which he can deservedly be blamed; . . .he would say and do some things and indeed almost anything . . .where the hope of money allured him." He was certainly cruel by modern standards, and exacted a high toll from his subjects, but he laid the foundation for the economic and political success of England.