Top 11 Interesting Facts about William the Conqueror

History is paved with legendary characters. From Alexander the Great to Napoléon, all ages have had their fair share of great figures. Among them, few have had the importance of William the Conqueror. A medieval duke and king, William the Conqueror changed the face of Europe, mostly known for the crucial stabilization of the Duchy of Normandy, and the conquest and deep transformations of England. Here are ten facts about William the Conqueror.

Portrait of William the Conqueror

Portrait of William the Conqueror – Unknown artist – Source : Wikimedia Commons

1. William the Conqueror was a bastard

William was born in 1027, in Falaise, a small town in Normandy. He was the son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and Arlette, his concubine, whom he met – according to the legend – as she was cleaning her clothes by the river, in Falaise.

Although Robert and Arlette loved each other, Robert never married her, so William was born out of wedlock.

The castle in Falaise

The castle in Falaise, Normandy, picture by Viault on Wikimedia Commons

During his lifetime, he was called by several names. William II was his official name when he took the title of Duke of Normandy, but he was also often nicknamed “William the Great”.

“The Conqueror” was not a nickname contemporary of his time, since it was given nearly two centuries after his death. Likewise, his detractor would later call him “William the Bastard” as a reference to his birth from unmarried parents. However, this name likely was used posthumously as a quick explanation of his personality, rather than during his own life.

2. Multiple attempts were made to assassinate William the Conqueror when he was only a child

In 1034, Duke Robert of Normandy announces he wishes to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Most of his counsellors advised against it, since he didn’t have a legitimate heir to succeed to him in case anything happened during the journey– once again William was considered illegitimate.

To have the remarks stop, Robert announced he wished William to be his successor, should anything bad occur.

One year later, on his way back from the Holy City, Robert died, leaving the Normandy without a ruler.

Although the lineage was clearly stated by Robert’s will, the new and young Duke’s legitimacy was much questioned. Barely aged 8, William was seen unfit to rule by most of Normandy’s nobility. Mainly supported by members of his family, William – officially Duke of Normandy – mostly had to hide during the first months of his reign, since Normandy was plagued with instability. William was the target of several murder attempts.

One night in Valognes, he even had to flee, alone, to avoid an assassination attempt which was reported to him by his Fool. The fact that he fled alone in the night at such a young age contributed to forging his reputation of a young and valorous man.

Also supported by the King of France, Richard the First, William definitively recuperated the power of Normandy during the battle of Val-Ès-Dune, and became recognized as the Duke of Normandy.

3. William the Conqueror secured the borders of Normandy and its stability

Now established as Duke of Normandy, William had as main worry to ensure stability throughout his Duchy and around.

One major move of his was his marriage with Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of the Count of Flanders. Although the Pope refused the marriage, on grounds of consanguinity, the union took place, thus allowing the once enemy County of Flanders and Duchy of Normandy to become allies.

A close relative to the King of France and of descent from the House of Wessex in Anglo-Saxon England, Matilda was a very useful pawn in William’s greater scheme.

In the meantime, to complete his securing of his Duchy borders with the neighboring territories, William occupied the state of Maine which allowed Normandy to have a safety cushion against rival County of Anjou. He also ensured that the rebels which shook neighboring Brittany were reinforced, thus troubling the stability of Brittany. Brittany held a grudge against Normandy which took the Island of Mont-Saint-Michel, years earlier.

To date, Mont-Saint-Michel, which you can visit with our Day-trip specialty tour here – is still part of Normandy, despite being geographically at the entrance of the Britannic peninsula.

With inner trouble, Britannic rulers could not plan anything against Normandy.

4. William the Conqueror lost to Harold Godwinson for the thone

In 1051, King Edward of England who did not have any heir, designated William, his far cousin, as heir to the throne of England. William however, finding the choice strange, remained doubtful.

To convince him, Edward sent him a messenger, the powerful British earl Harold Godwinson. Harold swore to William, on the relics of the Bayeux Cathedral, that he and the British nobility, would recognize William as King of England, as per the current King’s will. The move convinced William who could now contemplate new goals.

However, a few years later, Edward changed his mind, and declared on his death bed that his successor would be Harold, after all…

Edward and Harold

Edward and Harold as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry – Source : Wikimedia Commons

The laws of Anglo-Saxons considered that the King’s last wish was the one that prevailed, while the Norman laws considered the first word to be irrevocable – most especially to avoid that very situation!

Feeling aggrieved, William prepared an expedition to get what he considered to be his lawful land. In the meantime, Harold sat on the English throne…

5. William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings against the King Harold & his army

William landed onto British soil on September 29, 1066, accompanied by many Norman landlords and barons, whom he had convinced.

It took nearly two weeks for Harold to hear from the Norman landing and to react.

On October 12, the two armies were on the verge of fighting. While the Normans understood the gravity of the situation and calmly and solemnly prepared for war, the Anglo-Saxons were much more relaxed, and drank and partied.

The next day, the most important battle in the history of England took place, in a field, near Hastings. The battle of Hastings lasted exceptionally long. Instead of the usual couple of hours that most medieval battles lasted, Hastings lasted from dawn to dusk.

Although the first hours were clearly at the advantage of William, the odds changed in the afternoon, and the Anglo-Saxons became clear favorite. Up until the last quarter of hour of the battle, the Normans really braced for their ultimate defeat. However, William ordered a few knights to focus all their efforts on Harold. The British King was quickly targeted and died, marking the loss of the Anglo-Saxons.

Harold's death

Harold’s death as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry – Photo by Myrabella on Wikimedia Commons

The following days, William and his troops reached London, all the while sacking the villages and lands they went through.

6. The crowning of William the Conqueror was “celebrated” by setting buildings on fire

William the Conqueror after Hastings

William the Conqueror after Hastings, image extracted from Poems for Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s, 1885, on Wikimedia Commons

William was crowned King of England on December 25, 1066.

The ceremony took place in Westminster. During the crowning, cheers and acclamations were mistaken by the guards for a rebellion against the new king. They decided to make a diversion by setting the surrounding buildings on fire.

The event started a panic and the crowds, inside and outside the abbey started running everywhere.

Eventually, a shaking William got to finish his crowning, which forever remained a quite inglorious moment of his reign.

7. William the Conquerer constructed the Tower of London

By conquering England, the Normans brought many things from their culture to that land. Among the most important ones were fortresses. To assert his power, William had hundreds of fortifications built throughout the country, most of which still standing today.

One of them became the symbol of the King’s power: the White Tower in London. Set on the banks of the river Thames, the White Tower was the most perfect example of Norman constructions, with high walls built in Caen stone. Today, the White Tower is better known under the name Tower of London, and is still a symbol of the Royal power.

Tower of London

The Tower of London – Source : Pixabay.com CC0

8. William the Conquerer used fear tactics to control his people

William’s strategy to ensure he kept the control was to be rather tough with the Anglo-Saxons and to impose a Norman leadership. Most of the Saxon’s high-value goods were confiscated, and key positions in the nobility and the clergy were filled by Normans.

Naturally, the Saxon people did not let themselves be controlled so easily. Revolts and riots took place all across England, but William resisted the pressure and exerted a systematic and tough retaliation.

The most important example is the revolt of York in 1069. To counteract violent riots in the Duchy of York, William engaged in one of the most violent examples of retaliation. He forced the whole region to bend by ruining the area. He ordered absolute devastation, murdering people, slaughtering animals, setting entire fields and harvests on fire, ruining soils, and pushing local populations to starvation, and poverty.

With such a hard pressure exerted, William managed to be recognized by most of the English in a rather short time.

9. William the Conqueror’s third son, Henri, unexpectedly became ruler of both England and Normandy

On September 9, 1087, William passed away. Before he died, he decided to split his kingdom in two territories, England on one side, Normandy on the other – as you can see, Brexit was not such a new idea! He gave Normandy to his first son, Robert, and England to his second son, William. Henri, his third son did not get anything.

However, the unfair deal was to turn in favor of Henri. In England, the young William was not very appreciated. In 1100, he accidentally died while hunting. Henri, who was there, seized the opportunity. He ran to Winchester to get his hand on the royal treasure, and once he secured it, took the throne, without much resistance, thus becoming the new King of England.

In Normandy, another opportunity occurred when Robert left for a crusade. Henri took advantage of the empty throne to sit on it, and when Robert got back, he had him imprisoned. Now King of England and Duke of Normandy, Henri had his revenge.

Hoping for his son to take his succession, he saw his hopes vain when the said son died at sea, however. Fearing for his lineage, he decided to marry his daughter to a Norman high-class man, of the Plantagenet family. From this union was born Henri II, who later married Eleanor of Aquitaine, thus enshrining the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty.

10. William the Conquerer cemented the Nordic, Germanic & Roman influences in the English language

In addition to architecture and culture, William the Conqueror brought another important thing to England: the language. The Anglo-Saxon language was a founding element of today’s English language and was highly influenced by Nordic (Norse) languages. However, William did not speak a word of it! With his Court, he spoke Norman dialects, which were mostly Roman languages.

In modern English, the mix between Germanic and Nordic languages and Roman languages is still perceivable.

11. William the Conqueror’s  “Domesday Book” was one of the first examples of national population census

Upon sitting on the throne, William the Conqueror had no clue of how the society he was about to lead was made. He did not know how many people lived in England, nor how many households composed it. He did not know who owned what.

Therefore, he commissioned several of his aides to go across the country and list in a unique book all the people of his land, their possessions, their livestock, and their housing.

Domesday

Extract from the Domesday Book – Source : Wikimedia Commons

That large intelligence data was call “the Domesday Book”, old-English form of “Doomsday”. The book was supposed to give a very accurate vision of the kingdom and could be used in case of a crisis. The document is a precious source for historians as it gives a good idea of eleventh century England. It is to note that many Englishmen lied about their possessions to avoid extra-taxes, though.

The Domesday Book was one of the first national population census.

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A major figure of the European Middle Ages, William the Conqueror changed the course of history for England and the North of France. His heritage marked the Norman and British cultures so profoundly that they still are very perceivable today.