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Companions of the Conqueror (act. 1066–1071) is an often misused phrase that is best applied to the people who planned and executed the successful invasion of England in 1066 under the leadership of Duke William II of Normandy, and who by 1071 had secured control of the English realm, of which their leader was now King William I.

Defining companionship: the core group

The core group can be identified from the sources that describe (rather sketchily) the preparations for the invasion and (at much greater length) the conquest itself, notably the literary narratives, the Bayeux tapestry, and the ‘ship list of William the Conqueror’. But many outside this group took part in the conquest, and it is not clear exactly where the line should be drawn between companions and mere participants. In any case the term should not be taken to cover the whole army: most knights and foot soldiers can have had only a limited acquaintance with the duke, and the mass of grooms, armour-carriers, cooks, and others serving the army even less. Nor should it be confined to those who actually fought at Hastings (still less to the small numbers who can be proved to have done so), since vital roles in the Norman conquest were played by others left behind to govern Normandy when the invasion fleet sailed, and by those who came over after the battle to help hold the kingdom and share in the spoils. The companions are probably best seen as the framework around which the army of invasion was built: great men with many knights of their own, able to supply the equipment, ships, labour, food, and money on which the success of the project depended.

The companions so defined do not correspond exactly with the great lords of Normandy named by William of Poitiers, or with those who contributed ships to the expedition, or with the greatest tenants-in-chief in 1086, though they all overlapped. They were not all Normans, and bonds of kinship, lordship, service, and alliance all went into shaping the group. It formed slowly during the years of William's rule over the duchy, but at its heart were the lifelong friendships and fierce personal loyalties that formed around him during his traumatic and violent childhood and adolescence in the 1040s. Foremost were his half-brothers Odo, bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, count of Mortain, the sons of his mother's regular marriage, with whom he was raised. Every bit as close were the other companions of his childhood, Roger de Montgomery, William fitz Osbern, and Roger, father of Robert de Beaumont. Montgomery's and fitz Osbern's fathers had been leading members of the ducal court earlier in the eleventh century; both men were more or less of an age with Duke William, owned large estates in Normandy, and were his friends and loyal supporters throughout their lives.

William's boyhood friendships were shaped more by the manner of his upbringing than by any deliberate choice on his part, but as he moved into adulthood his firm hand drew others into an inner circle of advisers. His choices were determined above all by his need, as ruler of a small duchy beset by deadly rivalries and surrounded by enemies, for supporters and allies of instinctive loyalty. His marriage to Matilda of Flanders began as dynastic alliance but became a companionate and loving relationship; she held the immediate family together and in 1066 was left behind to rule Normandy with Roger de Montgomery and others. No less significant was his choice of clerical advisers from the wider pool of bishops and monks. Only a few seem ever to have been close to him, and it may be significant that the two most prominent after Bishop Odo were from a slightly older set: Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, and the Italian monk Lanfranc. Bishop Geoffrey, from the aristocratic Mowbray family, is curiously absent from what we know of ducal government before 1066, but he was so well rewarded in England that his closeness to William can hardly be doubted. Lanfranc was already prior of Bec and a scholar and teacher of European reputation when the duke was still in his teens. Although in some ways an unlikely friend, he was firmly established in William's confidence from the mid-1050s. His role as a diplomat made him the duke's link to the papacy and thus the channel for papal support for the invasion of England.

Widening circles: the Norman contingent

The next circle of ducal companions was formed by the leading aristocratic families of Normandy. William had some freedom in shaping the Norman élite: whom to favour, when to go easy on a rebel, how to calm the enmities between families. When he married Matilda, for example, he recalled from exile in Flanders the brothers Richard fitz Gilbert (afterwards Richard de Clare) and Baldwin (de Meulles), sons of his old tutor Count Gilbert, and over a longer period he skilfully kept in play the rival branches of the Warenne kindred represented by William (I) de Warenne and Ralph (I) de Mortimer. Not all aristocratic families were equally well rewarded in England, and probably not all took an equal part in the conquest.

Kinship with the ducal house went some way towards defining the innermost circles of companions, but eligibility could derive from quite remote relationships, through descent from an illegitimate son of Duke Richard I (d. 996) or an obscure kinswoman of his wife, Duchess Gunnor (d. 1031). The ducal kin was not a constant over time; it contracted when William disposed of disloyal cousins, and expanded when the Frankish-descended family of Ralph de Tosny was recruited by a strategic marriage in the 1040s. A distant kinship may partly explain why the first vacant bishopric in conquered England, Dorchester in 1067, was given to Remigius, monk of Fécamp.

William's most loyal friends tended to be men of his own generation, companions in arms through the war-torn years of the 1040s and 1050s. He made fewer personal attachments among the noble families where the generations were out of step with his own, but still had to keep old men sweet and their sons eager to serve. An interesting case is the viscounts of Avranches: Richard Goz was prominent in the affairs of the duchy before 1066 (and lived until the early 1080s) but it was to his son Hugh d'Avranches that William gave a prominent role in pacifying England.

William's closest companions had many cross-links among themselves, independent of their ties to the duke but serving to reinforce a cohesion defined primarily by service and loyalty to him. The different families were densely intermarried, and patronized in common a cluster of Norman Benedictine abbeys, either of the duke's foundation or of their own, as with the family of Hugh de Grandmesnil, especially well known because of its links with St Evroult.

Outsiders and latecomers

As plans for the invasion took shape during 1066 the circle of companions widened further. The servants of the ducal household most experienced in making preparations for war must have been heavily involved, like perhaps Robert d'Oilly (constable afterwards if not already so). William further swelled his army by drawing on alliances with neighbouring counts, and the leaders of contingents from Flanders, Brittany, and elsewhere must have pledged themselves to serve him faithfully and had some share in planning. Significantly the earliest accounts of the conquest drew attention to prominent non-Norman leaders: Eustace (II), count of Boulogne; the heir of the county of Ponthieu, probably Hugues (significantly his uncle, Gui, bishop of Amiens, was the likely author of one of the accounts in question); Aimery, viscount of Thouars; and the Breton brothers Alan Rufus and Brian. Robert Cumin may have been a similar Flemish leader. Men with knowledge of England are also likely to have been closely involved in the discussions, including Humphrey de Tilleul (one of those who after Hastings chose to return to Normandy rather than take lands in England) and William Malet. At an early date the story was told (though it does not seem to have been true) that after the battle Duke William instructed Malet to bury Harold's body on the seashore.

Some of the men given responsible military commands at an early date in conquered England (and the huge rewards that followed), like Henry de Ferrers, Walter de Lacy, Geoffrey de Mandeville (grandfather of Geoffrey de Mandeville, first earl of Essex), and William de Percy, are difficult to trace in the affairs of the duchy before 1066 and may have made their reputations at Hastings itself, literally overnight as tales of the day's exploits were first passed round the campfires. The Conqueror and his companions had planned and prepared for an unprecedented military expedition with the utmost care; kept their nerve during anxious weeks between gathering on the Norman coast and finally luring Harold into an unwise pitched battle; and fought hard over a bloody and exhausting day of extraordinary reversals. They had been fantastically lucky, and with hindsight believed in any number of portents that during the days leading up to the battle seemed to have promised success. Any medieval battle on the unusual scale of Hastings was a transforming event for those who survived it. The difference that victory at Hastings made to the lives of the Conqueror's companions was especially dramatic. It also changed the fortunes of hundreds of lesser men who fought in the retinues of the duke and his companions and were rewarded with lands in England in the years during and after the pacification, men like William de Mohun, William Pantulf, and the founders of the baronial families of Beauchamp, Cardinan, Fossard, Kyme, Paynel, and Sackville. Many more (or their immediate heirs) appear as landowners in Domesday Book.

Legend and reality

In the glow of such extraordinary success the idea of companionship with the Conqueror took on an attraction for Anglo-Norman families that quickly burst through any restraints of historical authenticity, a factor that makes later traditions about who accompanied Duke William to England highly suspect. Simon (I) de Senlis, for instance, a younger son from the Capetian lands, actually arrived in England under William II, but as early as the next generation his family monastery was claiming that he had come over with the Conqueror. Long after the Conqueror's real companions had passed away the tradition persisted in many families that an ancestor had fought at Hastings; indeed, to have helped to conquer England became in time a mark of Englishness. It fitted with the belief of succeeding generations that they owed their lands to right by conquest. That view was most famously expressed when John de Warenne, sixth earl of Surrey, defied the impertinent demand of a royal official in 1279 to know by what right he held his lands by brandishing an ancient sword, supposedly his great-great-great-grandfather's from 1066, and declaring that it was this that constituted his warrant.

The term companions of the Conqueror was given currency by Victorian genealogists to help define the families with the longest pedigrees, those whose ancestors literally ‘came over with the Conqueror’, another phrase characteristic of the literature. The number known for certain to have taken part in the battle, or to have been on the Hastings campaign (definitions of companionship differ), is exceedingly small for an army counted in thousands. Nineteen were named in strictly contemporary accounts (William of Poitiers, the Carmen de Hastingae proelio, and the Bayeux tapestry) and five more by the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis from sources likely to be reliable; another nine attested charters issued during the summer of 1066 in circumstances linked with the planning of the invasion. But lists of companions running into the hundreds were inscribed in 1866 at Dives-sur-Mer (the port for the invasion fleet) and in 1931 at Falaise (the Conqueror's birthplace), and these continue to circulate widely in the early twenty-first century.

Their compilers drew on sources that are transparently not in themselves contemporary lists from 1066, notably Domesday Book, the Roman de Rou (a twelfth-century verse history of Normandy by Wace), and the several variants of the so-called Battle Abbey roll. Domesday Book named landowners in 1086 without regard to their involvement in the conquest. Wace has recently been shown to have probably undertaken inquiries among the Norman families of his own day about their ancestors' participation in the conquest, but that is not to say that all such family traditions were true. The Battle Abbey roll is the supposed original lying behind a complicated set of lists of purported companions, mostly preserved only in early modern printed books; the lists underwent copying, expansion, and invention over a period of centuries. The claims embodied there, and still made in all seriousness, that ‘my family came over with the Conqueror’, are testimony (if any were needed) to the continuing potency of the Norman conquest in the English imagination.

C. P. Lewis


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