William, Duke of Normandy

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 1999, A.S. XXXIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

For many people, William’s life begins in 1066 with his audacious invasion of England and his great victory at Hastings. But as with any major turning point in history, much preparation took place before those events of summer and fall. The story of what led to those events of that year starts before William was even born. This is that story.

The story begins with the birth of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. His mother was Emma, daughter to the Duke of Normandy. During the time of Cnut’s reign in England, Edward stayed and grew up in Normandy. In this way was the fates of Normandy and England linked.

William’s father was the son of Emma’s brother, thus William was second cousin to Edward, and on this based his claim on the English throne. William’s own birth in Falaise in 1028 was the result of a dalliance of Robert I with a tanner’s daughter named Herleve or Arlette. Hence William’s less edifying sobriquet: “the Bastard”.

William’s childhood came to an early end when his father died in 1035 on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The next twelve years were chaotic as William attempted to secure his rule over Normandy. Three of his guardians died violently, and his tutor murdered. Finally in 1047 came the most serious revolt which William put down with the help of Henry I of France in the battle of Val es Dunes.

Secured at home, William began to expand the borders of Normandy. His attention first turned to the County of Maine. His interest was not so much in acquiring lands as it was checking the growing power of Count Geoffrey Martel of Anjou whose lands where on the other side of Maine. Count Geoffrey had recently dispossessed the Count of Maine and occupied a city, Alencon, next to the border of Normandy. With the help of Henry I, William took Alencon in a night attack, and during the winter of 1051-52 took the strategic castle of Domfront in a siege.

However in 1052, alarmed by the growing power of William, and reconciled with Geoffrey, Henry turned on William, and fostered rebellion in the eastern part of the duchy. In 1054, Henry invaded Normandy, but was defeated at Mortemer. A pillage raid was conducted in 1058 and stopped at Varaville. The threat of Henry and Geoffrey ended in 1060 when both died. It was until 1063, however, that William took possession of the rest of Maine.

At the same time, to shore up another front, William married Matilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. At the time the negotiations for the marriage began in 1049, Baldwin was rebelling against the Emperor Henry III. Pope Leo IX supported the emperor, and so as part of the campaign against Baldwin, denounced the proposed marriage as incestuous. Nevertheless, around 1052 the marriage took place. William finally reconciled with the pope in 1059 and built two monasteries near Caen as penance. They made an interesting couple. Judging from a single surviving thigh bone, that may not be his, William about five foot ten. When Matilda’s tomb was reconstructed in 1961, an examination showed she was only four foot two. There is also some evidence that they actually had some affection for each other, a rarity for such marriages.

Also during this time, William visited England in 1051 where apparently King Edward named him his heir. In 1064, Harold Godwinson was shipwrecked on the coast of Ponthieu. There are two conflicting stories why Harold out in the Channel. The more oft told tale was that Edward had sent him to Normandy to reconfirm William’s succession. Another simply has it that he was out fishing. Whatever the reason, he was captured by the Count of Ponthieu.

William quickly demanded and secured Harold’s release. He then took Harold to Rouen and hosted him with great hospitality. He even took him on a campaign against Brittany. Most important, according to the Norman chronicles, William received from Harold an oath of fealty and promise to help him secure the throne of England.

Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066. The next day, Harold was crowned king. That summer William assembled his army and built a fleet to take them across the Channel. Citing Harold’s oath, he enlisted the Pope’s support, charging Harold with perjury and usurpation. The effort acquired the air of a grand adventure, not unlike the First Crusade that was to come. Recruits came from as far as southern Italy. Contrary winds kept at port till the end of September and away from his intended beachhead. But the delay was to William’s advantage, as by the time he did sail, Harold had been drawn North to deal with Harold Haradraada, allowing William to land unopposed and into history.

By the time William conquered England, he had been a ruler for over thirty years. And he ruled England no differently then he ruled Normandy. Much of what he did in England had already been tested in Normandy. But what most often goes unnoticed in this transition is that it was not as sudden as the military conquest would make it seemed. Since the time of Emma, Normans had been immigrating to England and becoming a part of the ruling class. In some ways, Edward the Confessor was as much Norman as he was English. As can be seen from above, the Norman Conquest was not a sudden turn in fate for England, but the climax of protracted ambition.



Barlow, Frank. "William I." Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. 1986. Vol. 12, pp. 666-667

Brooke, Christopher. From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.

Haskins, Charles Homer. The Normans in European History. New York: Barnes & Nobles, 1995.

Patourel, John Le. The Norman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Setton, Kenneth. "900 Years Ago: The Norman Conquest." National Geographic August 1966: 206-251.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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