William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

(c. 1020-1087)

The man who changed the history of England was born in Falaise, Normandy. William the Conqueror was the son of Duke Robert of Normandy. Though born out of wedlock, William became duke of Normandy in 1035 upon the death of his father. He was placed in the care of guardians for the next 12 years and was not able to assert his powers until 1047, when King Henry I of France defeated rebellious vas¬ sals of William within Normandy.

William cast an eager eye across the English Channel to Anglo-Saxon England, a country that had fall¬ en into confusion after the death of King Canute (see no. 24).King Edward the Confessor admired the Normans, and he promised the kingdom to William upon his death, although the two men were only cousins by marriage.Edward died in 1066, and the Anglo-Saxon “witan” (high council) gave the throne to Harold Godwinsson, who was more closely related to the king than William.

Furious over this rejection, William collect¬ ed an army of Norman knights at the channel and waited for the right winds to cross to England. He landed at Pevensey, England with 7,000 soldiers. William was fortunate that Harold was diverted to the north to fight an invasion of Danes. After defeating the Danes at the Battle of Stamford Bridge,Harold marched south to confront William. The two armies collided at Hastings.

After an exhausting contest, William’s combination of cavalry and foot soldiers won the day. Harold was killed by an arrow. Following the victory, William marched to Dover, then led his men on a destructive march to London. As his troops destroyed homes and ransacked villages, the remaining Anglo-Saxon resist¬ ance began to fade. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066.

Though the battle and crown were won, the Norman Conquest was not yet complete. William had to work for five years to subdue England. The resist¬ ance was strongest in the north; therefore, he led a systematic ravaging of that area in 1069-1070. By 1072, he was indeed master of England.

The third and final phase of William’s career involved holding on to the vast areas he controlled. New rulers of France and Anjou challenged his rights, and he suffered setbacks at Dol (1076) and Gerberoi (1079) on the Norman border with France. He managed to keep what he had acquired. At the time of his death, William ruled over Normandy and England, a vast area that would later be the focus of much dissension between the monarchy in France and the kings of England.