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William I [known as William the Conqueror]locked

  • David Bates

William I (1027/88–1087)

embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry) [enthroned]

by special permission of the City of Bayeux

William I [known as William the Conqueror] (1027/8–1087), king of England and duke of Normandy, was born at Falaise.

Family and background

William's father was Robert (II), duke of Normandy (d. 1035), called ‘the Magnificent’. The origins of his mother, who was named Herleva (fl. c.1010–c.1055), have been much debated on the basis of evidence which all dates from the twelfth century; she has been variously identified as the daughter of an undertaker or a tanner of Falaise, or as a woman of the ducal household. Although a permanent liaison unconsecrated by the church was fairly normal among the rulers of the emergent Norman duchy in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, William's birth was by standards which were becoming the norm during his own lifetime, and which have endured ever since, illegitimate; he is regularly described as bastardus in non-Norman contemporary sources. At a date for which the evidence is both late and contradictory, but which was probably shortly before the year 1030, Herleva was married to Herluin de Conteville. This marriage produced at least two sons and two daughters, the former of whom, Odo (d. 1097) and Robert (d. 1095), were subsequently to be advanced to the summit of Norman society by their brother as bishop of Bayeux and count of Mortain respectively. Probably in 1050 William married Matilda of Flanders (d. 1083), the daughter of Count Baudouin (V) of Flanders. The marriage produced four recorded sons and, in all probability, five daughters between 1051 and 1068. The males, in order of birth, were Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy from 1087 to 1106, Richard, who was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest between 1069 and 1075, William Rufus [see William II], king of England from 1087 to 1100, and Henry I, king of England from 1100 to 1135 and duke of Normandy from 1106 to 1135. The known females, whose order of birth is unclear, were Adelida, Cecilia, Matilda, Constance, and Adela, countess of Blois (c. 1067–1137).

Tutors named Ralph the Monk and William appear in charters which date from the late 1030s and early 1040s. Their presence, along with later indirect evidence, such as the poetry and histories written to celebrate the conquest of England, suggest that the young William received some sort of literary education, but specific detail is entirely lacking. The main contemporary narrative sources for William's career from the Norman side are the histories written by William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers and, from the English, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. All present problems of interpretation. Jumièges, who initially finished writing in the late 1050s, subsequently resuming work after 1066 and finishing in 1070 or 1071, wrote to glorify the history of Normandy's rulers. Poitiers, whose history was finished before 1077, wrote specifically to praise and justify William's career and the conquest of England. The chronicle, though annalistic and factual, has something of the character of a lament for the English defeat. The two most important historians of the first half of the twelfth century, Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, also have their own angles on events; both were of Anglo-French parentage, with the former seeing the conquest as a moral problem to be analysed and the latter aiming to set events in the longer-term course of England's history.

William's father's control over his duchy was at times precarious. His problems, such as the rebellions of two close relatives, Archbishop Robert of Rouen and Bishop Hugues of Bayeux, highlight the theme of volatility within the ducal kindred, a powerful disruptive force in Norman political society. Another well-established theme in Normandy's history was regular conflict between the Norman rulers and their neighbours; William of Jumièges records that Robert fought wars against Brittany and the lords of Bellême. Robert gave notable support to the English princes Edward (the Confessor) and Alfred, the sons of King Æthelred the Unready, who had been in exile in northern France since 1016. The suggestion that Robert may have been briefly betrothed to a daughter of Cnut, king of England and Denmark (r. 1016–35), which was made by the Burgundian writer Ralph Glaber, raises the possibility that William might have been pushed to one side if his father had ever produced a son as the result of a Christian marriage. However, the young William's appearance in charters which date from his father's short reign surely indicates that he was acknowledged as a likely heir from the beginning. In January 1035 he was formally designated as Robert's heir, with the Norman magnates swearing fealty to him and the French king Henri I confirming the arrangement. Robert's death at Nicaea on the return journey from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land meant that William became duke of the Normans during his eighth year.

The establishment of ducal rule

There are signs that William's guardians tried initially to continue Duke Robert's policies on his son's behalf. In 1036 in particular, support was given to two separate invasions of England by the brothers Edward and Alfred, who both sought unsuccessfully to profit from the disorder in England which followed Cnut's death; Alfred was captured and killed, while Edward circumspectly withdrew when he appreciated that the English had by and large accepted Harold Harefoot as king. Although a chronology of William's first years is difficult to establish, it is as good as certain that those acting on his behalf were increasingly unable to maintain control within the duchy from the later 1030s onwards. At one point William's own entourage seemingly became so unsafe for the young duke that Herleva's brother deemed it necessary to conceal the boy in poor people's cottages at night for his safety. Two of William's aristocratic guardians were killed c.1040 and much of the duchy was disturbed by feuds between leading aristocratic families. Given the difficulties of these times, it is also extremely unlikely that William's power and reputation were in any way responsible for Edward the Confessor's succession to the English kingdom in 1042, as his panegyrist William of Poitiers would wish us to believe. From c.1042 onwards, when William was declared to be of age, he and those around him began steadily to reassert ducal authority. None the less in 1046–7 William's right to be duke was attacked by his cousin, Gui, count of Brionne. Gui and his associates, most of whom came from the leading aristocratic families of western Normandy, were defeated by an army led by William and the French king Henri I to the south-west of Caen at Val-ès-Dunes. Although William of Poitiers suggests that William played a leading role in the battle, the earlier—and in his case certainly more credible—account by William of Jumièges assigns a great deal of credit for the victory to Henri I.

The Truce of God was probably proclaimed throughout Normandy c.1042. According to Orderic Vitalis, after the battle of Val-ès-Dunes a siege lasting for three years was required to remove Count Gui from his castle at Brionne. So long a siege seems unlikely, because William was very active elsewhere in 1048 and was involved in campaigns outside Normandy by late 1049. Similarly improbable is William of Poitiers's assertion that William offered to pardon Count Gui, who, however, insisted on going into exile; the story is likely to be a topos of princely magnanimity, since William in later life treated all close kindred who opposed him very harshly indeed. Other rebels of 1047 were imprisoned or exiled. From the mid-1040s the lists of attestations to ducal charters begin regularly to include the names of William fitz Osbern, Roger de Montgomery, and Roger de Beaumont, men who were to be William's closest political associates in the decades ahead. His brother Odo, although in his mid- to late teens at most, was appointed to the bishopric of Bayeux in late 1049 or early 1050, a significant step in the assertion of William's authority in western Normandy.

The troubles of William's late childhood had been characterized by unauthorized aristocratic castle building and the consolidation of both the local territorial power of the greatest aristocratic families and their grip on the central and local offices of ducal government. Despite assertions in William of Poitiers that William destroyed unlicensed castles, it is clear that the young duke by and large accepted the changes in patterns of power which had taken place. He started to play an active role in the politics of northern France by the mid-1040s, and, by 1049, negotiations were under way for his marriage to Matilda, the daughter of arguably the most powerful of all the great territorial princes of northern France, Count Baudouin (V) of Flanders. The marriage, initially condemned by Pope Leo IX as within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, apparently took place in 1050. Norman bishops were present at the Council of Rheims at which the marriage was first condemned and, in 1050, the prior of Le Bec, Lanfranc, who was to be appointed to the archbishopric of Canterbury at William's behest after the conquest, visited Leo IX in Rome. This intense diplomatic effort was probably enough to allow the marriage to take place, although all the outstanding business connected with it was not cleared up until 1059.

Expanding horizons

The sequence of events during the five years after 1047 is difficult to determine precisely, with the dating of some events, notably the sieges of Alençon and Domfront, both uncertain and controversial. The nature and the chronology of William's contacts with King Edward the Confessor during 1051–2 in particular remain the subject of differing interpretations. Late in 1049 William joined the French king's campaign against Geoffroi Martel, count of Anjou, taking part in the successful siege of the castle of Mouliherne near Angers. William's participation in the campaign is likely to represent a continuation, not only of the victorious alliance of Val-ès-Dunes, but of a policy of support for the Robertian/Capetian kings of France which had been consistently followed by the rulers of Normandy since the middle of the tenth century.

William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers tell that Robert of Jumièges, the Norman archbishop of Canterbury, conveyed a promise from Edward to William that he would be king of the English after his death. Although this promise is not mentioned in the contemporary English sources, the information they provide about Archbishop Robert's itinerary suggests that William must have been informed of the promise in April 1051. The silence of the English sources makes it impossible to know precisely how far the offer of the succession contributed to the rebellion and exile of Godwine, earl of Wessex, and his family in 1051–2. It is, however, a reasonable supposition that the promise was one among a series of factors which drove Godwine to defy the king; the dispatch by Edward to William of Godwine's youngest son and his nephew as hostages suggests his antipathy to William's succession. This in turn almost certainly indicates that there was from the first a powerful opposition to William's succession among the English or Anglo-Danish aristocracy. The D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's unique statement that William visited England during 1051 after Godwine's exile has sometimes been doubted, on the grounds of the chronicle's northern provenance and the absence of any reference to the visit in the Norman sources. Neither of these objections is convincing, especially now that the chronicle's compilation has been persuasively relocated to Worcester. Not only is the manuscript of the D text contemporary and pre-1066, the absence of any mention of the visit from the more politically sensitive C and E texts of the chronicle could be a consequence of a comprehensible desire not to embarrass the king and the kingdom's leading family. The silence of the Norman sources may well be explained either because they did not want to show William as a supplicant, or because William of Poitiers wanted to argue not only that William had been designated by Edward, but that his succession had the assent of the most powerful English magnates, something which was manifestly impossible when Godwine and his sons were in exile. William's visit, at a time when Edward must have seemed triumphant within his kingdom, must have been intended to confirm the earlier offer and to clarify the duke's prospects.

The status of any offer made to William must have been immediately thrown into doubt, however, when Godwine returned to England in 1052 with the backing of a powerful army. Poitiers's version of the events states that the promise to William received the assent of earls Godwine, Leofric, and Siward, as well as of Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, indicating that their assent must have been a part of the peace terms between Edward and Godwine. In the context of Godwine's earlier attitude and his power in 1052 this seems unlikely; Poitiers has probably compressed the real or feigned agreement which all four individuals may at some moment have given into a single collective assent, in a manner rather typical of his style. After 1052 William's prospects of succeeding peacefully to the English kingdom were remote, given the advance of Godwine's sons Harold and Tostig to the earldoms of Wessex and Northumbria respectively and the return to England in 1057 of Edward the Exile and his son, Edgar Ætheling.

Although the dating is controversial, it is likely that William also campaigned in southern Normandy in 1051–2, capturing and securing the castles of Alençon and Domfront, which their lord, Yves, bishop of the southern Norman diocese of Sées and holder of the lordship of Bellême, had apparently made available to his ally, Geoffroi Martel, count of Anjou. The political situation in the region to the south of Normandy had been drastically changed from the mid-1040s by Count Geoffroi's acquisition of lordship over the county of Maine, which placed him in a position directly to threaten Normandy if he wished to do so. After failing to take Domfront by a surprise attack, William's army settled down to a long siege. Count Geoffroi's retreat, attributed by William of Poitiers to the count's fear of Duke William, was more likely a strategic decision that it was not worth fighting a risky battle for the two castles. William then advanced rapidly on Alençon and captured it, before returning to take Domfront. William's conduct of this campaign displays the same capacity for tactical manoeuvring and for patient accumulation of advantage which was to be very often evident later. The capture of Alençon was preceded by a famous incident in which the defenders beat furs and pelts as an allusion, according to Orderic Vitalis, to the duke's maternal origins. After capturing the town, William reacted by having the culprits' hands and feet cut off. Such calculated cruelty was also to be a feature of his later career.

William's circumstances were rendered difficult by the developments which followed. By 15 August 1052 at the latest, Count Geoffroi and King Henri had formed an alliance which turned out to be directed primarily against William. William had apparently attempted unsuccessfully to forestall this development, since a charter shows that he made a visit to Henri on 15 August 1052. William's uncle, Guillaume, count of Arques, rebelled against his nephew soon after the siege of Domfront and established himself in his castle at Arques backed up by a formidable coalition of neighbouring princes from north-eastern France. The reasons for both developments are obscure. It is possible that William's English involvements alarmed his northern French contemporaries. Alternatively, Henri I may have decided that Count Geoffroi was becoming so successful that it had become folly to oppose him. Count Guillaume, who seems to have been a considerable support to his nephew during his adolescence, may well have been offended by William's advancement of his own protégés. William again moved with a rapidity which disrupted his enemies' attempts at co-ordination. Arques was speedily invested and a relieving force beaten off on 25 October 1053. After the castle's capture, King Henri retreated. A subsequent two-pronged attack aimed at Rouen and Upper Normandy was nullified when a group of Upper Norman magnates loyal to William defeated one of the two invading armies at the battle of Mortemer in February 1054. The other army, led by Henri and Count Geoffroi, left Normandy soon after.

As a consequence of these campaigns, William was able to gain some allies and some territory around Normandy's frontiers. Gui, count of Ponthieu, to the north-east of Normandy, who had been captured by William, made an agreement with him and, to the south of the duchy, the duke was able to establish a castle at Ambrières, some miles south of Domfront, which he was able to hold against Count Geoffroi's subsequent assault. Count Guillaume of Arques was permanently exiled from Normandy and his lands were redistributed to loyalists and, in 1054, William was able to secure the deposition from the archbishopric of Rouen of Count Guillaume's brother, Malger. In 1057, however, Count Geoffroi and King Henri were able to launch a second invasion of Normandy, again using the alliance with Bishop Yves to facilitate access to the duchy. William's army shadowed the invaders to the channel coast near Caen, evading battle until an opportune moment appeared, and pouncing only when his enemies were crossing the River Dives at Varaville. This victory at Varaville is a major landmark in William's fortunes since Normandy was not invaded again until near the end of his life. Bishop Yves of Sées abandoned his Angevin alliance and allowed the heiress to Bellême to be married to William's loyal follower Roger de Montgomery. William was pressing the attack into France when both Henri and Geoffroi died in 1060.

The deaths of Henri I and Geoffroi Martel created the conditions in which William was able to make territorial gains in northern France and establish a Norman predominance there which lasted for his lifetime. The new French king, a minor, came under the guardianship of William's father-in-law, the count of Flanders. The county of Anjou suffered a succession dispute and other powerful princes, such as Ralph, count of Amiens, Valois, and the Vexin, became William's allies.

In 1063 William was able to secure the succession of himself and his eldest son, Robert, to the county of Maine. The way in which William covered his acquisition in an apparatus of legitimacy in significant respects anticipates his treatment of the English kingdom. From William of Poitiers it is learned that Herbert (II), count of Maine from 1051 to 1062, had promised the succession to William. Not only are there good reasons for thinking that the promise may not have been as clear-cut as Poitiers suggests, but the prospect of a Norman succession to Maine also provoked extensive local resistance and the county's inhabitants offered it to Galtier, count of the Vexin. William campaigned by ravaging the countryside, accepting the surrender of individual castles and gradually isolating the town of Le Mans until it surrendered. Galtier was captured and died shortly afterwards; Orderic Vitalis reported rumours that William had him killed, but the evidence to support these accusations is not convincing. William proceeded to rule Maine within the social and customary framework of previous counts of Maine, to the extent, for example, of allowing his son Robert to do fealty to the count of Anjou.

William's final campaign in northern France before 1066 was a destructive advance into Brittany as far as Rennes, on which he was accompanied by Harold, earl of Wessex. Although no major acquisitions were made, the expedition undoubtedly served to overawe the count of Brittany, whose power was in any case rather insecure, and completed the establishment of a cordon sanitaire of friendly powers around Normandy's frontiers. Harold's presence enabled William to extract an oath from him to accept the duke's succession to the English kingdom. The reasons why Harold visited Normandy were the subject of disagreement among historians writing in the eleventh century. The basic version of events recorded most clearly by William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers, that Harold was sent by Edward the Confessor to renew his earlier offer of the succession, should probably be accepted; it is perhaps, however, open to doubt whether Harold expected to be asked to swear oaths on relics to that effect. The Norman sources show William treating Harold with full diplomatic courtesy, rescuing him from captivity at the hands of the count of Ponthieu and treating him as a distinguished soldier. William of Poitiers and subsequently Orderic see the oath-taking as essentially a means to allow William to succeed peacefully to the English kingdom and for Harold's political pre-eminence therein to be guaranteed. In practice, William had also established persuasive arguments for portraying Harold as a perjurer should he break his promise and take the English kingdom. Another sign that William had been preparing for an invasion of England after the Confessor's death is his early designation of his son Robert as his heir in or before 1063. Norman rulers had generally waited until the last months of their lives before clarifying the succession; like his father before him, William was preparing against a potentially fatal outcome to a hazardous project.

The 1066 campaign

William's victorious campaign in 1066 was a triumph of co-ordinated warfare, diplomacy, organization, and propaganda. His reaction to Harold's coronation, which followed a deathbed grant of the succession by Edward the Confessor, was to dispatch an embassy to Rome to secure the papacy's approval for the forthcoming invasion. The mission convinced Pope Alexander II to sanction the invasion with a papal banner. Although it has at times been suggested that no such banner was conferred, the combination of William of Poitiers's statements, later comments by Pope Gregory VII, and the whole apparatus of ritualized penance and crown-wearings which followed the conquest, which must be regarded as a logical consequence of the banner, constitutes convincing testimony. Assemblies of the great Norman magnates were also held, at one of which William of Poitiers portrays William persuading the faint-hearted that the enterprise was not too risky to be undertaken. The consecration of Duchess Matilda's abbey of La Trinité at Caen on 18 June 1066 was without doubt a ceremony intended to secure further divine approval of what lay ahead. The government of Normandy was placed in Matilda's hands, assisted by Roger de Montgomery and Roger de Beaumont, for the duration of the expedition.

William spent the summer of 1066 travelling around the duchy, meeting with his chief magnates and playing host to the many warriors from beyond the Norman frontiers who intended to take part in the forthcoming expedition. The invasion fleet had assembled in the estuary of the River Dives and in neighbouring harbours by July. Ships and men were subsequently moved to St Valéry-sur-Somme in Ponthieu, from where they crossed the channel on the night of 27–8 September, arriving at Pevensey before dawn. William of Poitiers in particular puts William's long delay down to a wait for a favourable wind. This may be correct, but it is also notable not only that the English fleet stationed in the channel was forced to disband on 8 September, but that King Harold had been forced to march north to meet the invasion by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and Harold's own brother Tostig. Waiting for a favourable wind may well have to be interpreted as waiting for the most favourable military conditions in which to cross. After the landing William moved his army from Pevensey to Hastings. His strategy was to wait on the south coast for Harold's advance. His troops deliberately ravaged the surrounding countryside to demonstrate Harold's inability to defend his people as well as to provision the army. The psychological pressure appears to have been very effective, since Harold marched his forces south very rapidly after decisively defeating Harald Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September, reaching the area of modern-day Battle on 13 October.

Once he was aware of Harold's advance, William marched his army out in good order, choosing a battle site on which the English were confined to the steep ridge on which the town of Battle now stands. Harold's attempt to surprise William by a rapid advance south seems to have backfired, since William had engineered a situation in which Harold's tired and under-manned army was trapped south of the woods of the Weald and was obliged to give battle at a time of William's choosing. The conduct and the course of the battle of Hastings remain topics of controversy among historians. It is nowadays generally accepted that the armies must have been roughly equivalent in size, with the English being possibly slightly larger; William is frequently thought to have deployed around 7000 troops, although it is quite likely that he had more. The battle lasted all day, an extraordinarily long period for the middle ages, indicating that the two armies were evenly matched. The site presented difficulties for both sides, since William's troops had to advance up a steep incline, while the manoeuvrability of the English was restricted by the surrounding woodland. William's generalship may well have been one decisive difference, since he was able to use his cavalry's mobility in one or more feigned retreats to disrupt the closely packed English infantry; another must have been the English lack of archers, a crucial weakness caused by the rapidity of Harold's advance, since his army did not possess the ability to keep their opponents at a distance or to disrupt their advance to close quarters. Harold's death late in the day, as his army disintegrated around him, proved ultimately to be decisive since it deprived the English of military leadership.

William's advance through the south-east of England and his march around London were both the tactics of a general who believed that his opponents might rally, and who did not wish to be cut off in a hostile country. By first securing important towns such as Dover, Canterbury, and Winchester, William safeguarded his rear. His opponents in London, who had proclaimed Edgar Ætheling as king, were thereby increasingly isolated within the south of the kingdom. Once William reached Wallingford the submissions began to come in and, although there was further fighting, he was able to be crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas day 1066. The ceremony, conducted according to an English ordo, emphasized William's belief that he succeeded as the Confessor's designated and rightful heir, and was held amid maximum security. The guards were so jumpy that the shouted acclamations within the abbey caused a panic and the burning of neighbouring houses, because a rebellion was feared.

Conquest and consolidation

William took further submissions in the weeks which followed his coronation, including, crucially, those of the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Eadwine and Morcar. He also confirmed the privileges of the city of London and, according to William of Poitiers, made some laws. Before his departure for Normandy in March 1067, he seems to have done everything he could to project the image of a king who wished to rule in collaboration with his new English subjects, as well as with the support of the Normans, Bretons, Flemings, and other French who had accompanied him. It is likely that William fitz Osbern and Bishop Odo, nominated as earls at this time, and left in charge during William's absence, were given jurisdictions equivalent to the pre-1066 English earldoms of Wessex and Kent respectively. The writ confirming London's privileges, whose original survives, was written in Old English in traditional English style. Likewise a new issue of coinage was soon minted, again following pre-1066 patterns.

The six years after 1066 saw the breakdown of the Anglo-Norman regime of these first months. A combination of factors contributed to this. Not only were the incoming French greedy for lands and money, but William's wish to display himself as a king and the need to maintain security also meant that heavy taxes were levied. The expectations of the leading English were disappointed; Orderic Vitalis's description of Earl Eadwine's reasons for rebellion suggests that many must have thought their treatment by William not to be commensurate with their status. The temptation to revolt was increased by the arrival of invading armies from Scandinavia. The period between the battle of Hastings and the conclusion in 1072 of the peace of Abernethy with the king of Scots was dominated by a succession of demanding campaigns which gradually subdued England and the British Isles. The result, evidenced very clearly in Domesday Book, was the transference of lordship over almost all of England to Normans and other Frenchmen by 1086.

William spent from March to December 1067 in Normandy. He took with him several leading Englishmen, including Edgar Ætheling, Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury, and earls Eadwine and Morcar. Easter was spent at Fécamp, with many Normans and some northern French princes in attendance. The subsequent progress around Normandy included the consecration of two new abbey churches at Jumièges and St Pierre-sur-Dives. The contents of a narrative charter drawn up at Le Vaudreuil, regulating a property dispute at St James-de-Beuvron with the abbey of St Benoît-sur-Loire, do, however, indicate that even moments in this period of triumph had to be devoted to the perennial problems of defending Normandy's southern frontier. In the meantime, William's representatives in England, Bishop Odo and William fitz Osbern, had struggled to maintain control and had been able to hold down a restive population only by extensive castle building. Early in 1068 William led an army to the south-west, forcing Exeter's surrender and advancing into Cornwall. He returned to Winchester for Easter and at Whitsun Matilda, recently arrived from Normandy, was crowned queen at Westminster. Two charters which survive from this time show the king and queen surrounded by a large court attended by English and French, arguably the apogee of William's attempt to establish an Anglo-Norman state in England.

Shortly afterwards, earls Eadwine and Morcar rebelled and, at about the same time, Edgar Ætheling left court and took refuge with Malcolm Canmore, king of Scots. According to Orderic Vitalis, Eadwine rebelled because William had denied him genuine authority over his lands and because he had withheld a daughter promised to him in marriage; if correct, it indicates a telling lack of trust between William and one of his chief English subjects. Although Eadwine obtained Welsh allies and there was a rising in northern England, William was able to prevent his enemies combining by a swift march to the midlands and then to York. As in south-west England, where he had installed a Norman castellan at Exeter and a Breton earl in Cornwall, William had castles built at Warwick, Nottingham, and York and did the same on the return journey through Lincoln, Huntingdon, and Cambridge, in every case entrusting the site to a trusted follower. These fortifications were also undoubtedly intended as defences against an invasion from Scandinavia which William by then must have known was forthcoming. He and Matilda are known to have gone to Normandy for the winter of 1068–9. William returned to England in the spring in response to successful English attacks on York and Durham. He scattered his opponents, led again by Edgar Ætheling, outside York and returned south.

The years 1069 and 1070 undoubtedly represent the severest crisis of the post-conquest period. A large Danish army landed in northern England in the summer of 1069, apparently as a preliminary to a full-scale invasion by Swein Estrithson, king of Denmark. The Danes were joined by Edgar Ætheling and a large force of English rebels, and the combined army captured York on 20 September; the English were apparently ready to accept Swein as king. At approximately the same time a local rebellion overthrew Norman authority in Maine. It seems that William learned of the Danish invasion while hunting in the Forest of Dean, moving north after the fall of York. His initial strategy was one of containment, but after forcing a crossing of the River Aire near Pontefract, he advanced to York and spent Christmas there amid the ruined city; with a typical sense of royal magnificence, he sent to Winchester for his crown in order to hold a crown-wearing on the feast day. The Danish army, having refused to confront William in a pitched battle, retreated to the Humber and agreed to leave in the spring. After Christmas William took his army north into Northumbria, devastating the countryside as it went. This so-called ‘harrying of the north’ was condemned as barbaric by Orderic Vitalis and was described in lurid terms by Symeon of Durham. The objective, which was achieved, was to make the north of England temporarily uninhabitable and unable to support further rebellion. In either January or February 1070 his army crossed the Pennines in severe weather, defeated further revolts on the Welsh border, and organized the construction of castles at Chester and Stafford. He returned to Winchester for Easter to meet legates sent by the pope.

William's coronation by the cardinals at Winchester was an event without precedent in English history. It must be seen as a stage-managed ceremony by which the final seal of legitimacy was put on the conquest of England. Since 1066 William had worked closely with Pope Alexander II to give a religious aura to what had from the beginning been presented as a legal and divinely sanctioned enterprise in pursuit of William's just rights. In conformity with this pattern, for example, a papal legate with long experience of Norman affairs, Ermenfrid, bishop of Sion, confirmed a code of penance drawn up by the bishops of Normandy to be administered to all who had taken lives in the Hastings campaign and subsequently. The year 1070 may well also have been important in the foundation of Battle Abbey, the great monastery which William had founded on the field of Hastings as an act of contrition and as a memorial to the dead. Everything was done that could be done to sanitize the act of violence which the Norman conquest of England in the last resort was. There is ultimately no convincing reason to doubt the sincerity of William's efforts to placate what the eleventh-century mind saw primarily as a punishing God; they did, however, of course also serve a crucial political and propaganda purpose.

During 1070 the papal legates were involved in ecclesiastical synods which legislated for the reform of the English church. The 1070 Council of Winchester also began a process of depriving a number of English bishops of office, foremost among whom was the aged Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury. Their replacements were universally of continental origin, with the crucial see of Canterbury being given to Lanfranc, who thereafter played the central role in establishing the new Norman-French religious order in England. In 1071 William subdued the last pockets of English resistance, involving earls Eadwine and Morcar and Hereward the Wake on the Isle of Ely, and in the summer of 1072 he led an army into Scotland, supported by a fleet. King Malcolm Canmore, following a well-established tactic, retreated before the invader and then negotiated. By the resulting peace of Abernethy William became his lord, he gave hostages from his family, and he agreed to expel Edgar Ætheling from his court. Both the siege of Ely, which involved the construction of a causeway on to the isle, and the combined land-and-sea invasion of Scotland were considerable military feats. As a consequence of both, William had persuasively impressed his power on all his English and British enemies.

Rule over Normandy and England

The balance of William's priorities and the character of his rule manifestly changed from 1072. For the rest of his life he spent around four-fifths of his time in Normandy and France. This shift of interest may up to a point have been the result of personal preference. As a people, the English had after all done little to gain William's affection. According to Orderic Vitalis, he did set out to learn the English language, but abandoned the attempt. Political and military necessity must, however, have played a big part in determining William's new itinerary as the power of old rivals in northern France revived and new ones appeared. William had in fact returned to Normandy in the winter of 1070–71. His preoccupation at that point must have been the succession dispute in the county of Flanders between the widow and children of his wife's eldest brother, Count Baudouin (VI), and her next eldest, Robert the Frisian. A small army of intervention dispatched under the leadership of William fitz Osbern was, however, defeated at the battle of Kassel (20 or 22 February 1071), and fitz Osbern himself was killed. Robert the Frisian's victory meant that a very powerful, and previously friendly, northern French principality was henceforth hostile. In 1073 William organized a campaign which restored Norman authority in Maine. The expedition, which is notable for the participation of English troops, involved a typically systematic ravaging of the countryside and the eventual isolation of the town of Le Mans within the county. William appears, however, to have treated the rebels leniently in conformity with a pattern established since the county was first acquired in 1063.

Potentially very threatening was the revival of French kingship under Philippe I and of the county of Anjou under Foulques Rechin. In 1074 enemies on both sides of the channel sought to combine against William, as King Philippe offered the castle of Montreuil near Normandy's north-eastern frontier to Edgar Ætheling. Edgar's fleet was wrecked by storms in the North Sea, however, after which he bowed to the inevitable and made his peace with William and thereafter resided at his court; henceforth there was no longer a claimant of English birth to oppose William.

A combination of English and northern French enemies did, however, cause him great distress in 1075–6. The so-called 'revolt of the three earls' was hatched at the wedding feast of the Anglo-Breton Ralph, earl of East Anglia, and a daughter of the Norman William fitz Osbern. Ralph was joined in revolt by fitz Osbern's son, Roger, earl of Hereford, and, rather half-heartedly, by the last Englishman still holding an earldom, Waltheof of Northumbria. William, who was in Normandy, left the containment and the defeat of the revolt to deputies, returning to England only when he was informed that a Danish invasion was imminent. In fact, his generals prevented the rebel forces from uniting and the threat from Denmark evaporated. He spent Christmas at Westminster, attending the funeral of Edward the Confessor's queen, Edith. The rebels were harshly treated. Earl Roger lost his lands and was condemned to long-term imprisonment, many of the Bretons who had been involved with Earl Ralph were mutilated and exiled, and Earl Waltheof, who had thrown himself on William's mercy, was tried and then beheaded, according to English law, on 31 May 1076. Earl Ralph, however, escaped to his Breton lands and set about harassing Normandy from the castle at Dol. He received military support from Foulques Rechin, count of Anjou, and held firm when William commenced a siege in September 1076.

Some time later, probably in November, William's forces were surprised and defeated by a relieving force organized by King Philippe. This was the first serious military set-back of William's career. Orderic Vitalis, seeing God's hand at work, blamed the defeat on William's treatment of Waltheof, at whose tomb at Crowland Abbey miracles began to occur. Orderic also noted that thereafter William never drove his enemies from the field of battle and that life in general became more difficult for him. Given William's piety, the consecration of the church of his great monastic foundation of St Étienne of Caen on 13 September 1077 may well have been intended as an act of religious propitiation at a time of mounting problems.

Conflict broke out between William and his eldest son, Robert Curthose, either in late 1077 or in early 1078. Orderic Vitalis, the main source for events, describes a family quarrel at L'Aigle, after which Robert made an abortive attempt to capture the castle at Rouen before fleeing Normandy to recruit allies. The main source of friction is said to have been Robert's increasing irritation at his father's reluctance to give him real authority. The crisis may well be a consequence of disappointed expectations fomented by William's almost constant presence in Normandy after 1072. Robert had been designated as William's successor in Normandy in or shortly before 1063, and had also been declared count of Maine. Although William of Jumièges, whose history was completed by 1070–71, described Robert as being actually duke of Normandy, his real position was more ambiguous. Orderic in particular makes it clear that after 1066 responsibility for governing Normandy resided with Matilda and a group of major magnates, with charter evidence suggesting that this was still the case in 1075. After leaving Normandy, Robert sought support from the likes of King Philippe and Count Robert the Frisian. By the winter of 1078–9 he was established in the castle of Gerberoi to the south-east of the duchy. He appears to have met William's advance in open country and, in the resulting skirmish, William was wounded by his own son. The humiliated king retreated to Rouen. A settlement was finally brokered in the summer of 1080 and king and eldest son apparently reconciled.

The impact of the quarrel had kept William away from England for over three years and had given hope to old enemies such as the king of Scots, who had ravaged northern England in 1079. William's visit to England in 1080–81 was notable for great crown-wearings held at Christmas at Gloucester and at Whitsun at Winchester. It must have been during this period that William refused Pope Gregory VII's request that he become a vassal of the papacy; the letter written on William's behalf (probably by Archbishop Lanfranc) is a masterpiece of elegant simplicity: a payment of Peter's Pence would be sent to Rome because the levy had been paid by William's English predecessors, but as there was no precedent for vassalage, therefore the request was refused. In the autumn of 1080 William dispatched his son Robert to deal with the king of Scots, whom he pursued to Falkirk, where the terms of the peace of Abernethy were renewed. In 1081 William undertook an expedition into Wales, which was partly a pilgrimage to St David's, but also a military expedition to impose order after relatively stable relations among the Welsh princes had broken down after the death of King Caradog ap Gruffudd of Morgannwg at the hands of Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth. Later in 1081 the problems of maintaining order across his large lands took William to Maine to repulse an attack on the castle of La Flèche by Count Foulques Rechin. Christmas was spent at Le Mans before his return to Normandy. The result of these far-flung campaigns was to establish a modus vivendi with all the powers concerned which lasted until William's death.

William returned to England late in 1082 to arrest his brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux. Two twelfth-century sources, Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, agree that Odo was involved in a scheme to purchase the papacy for himself and that he was recruiting warriors to assist him when William apprehended him in the Isle of Wight. An earlier source, the Gesta Dei per Francos of Guibert de Nogent, suggests that Odo was making preparations to succeed William after his death. Orderic, who described the scene of the arrest in a dramatic set-piece account, also has William accuse Odo of oppressing the English during the periods when he was acting as William's regent in England. The breach with Odo must have been a considerable loss to William. Although the bishop's extravagance and excessive ambition are well recorded, the combined evidence of Domesday Book, a number of chronicles, and records of land pleas shows that he had played a central role in the organization of the land settlement of conquered England and had at certain times undeniably acted as regent on his brother's behalf. William had him shut up in prison at Rouen during the rest of the king's life and allowed the estates of his bishopric to be plundered.

Further family misfortunes hit William in 1083, with the death of Queen Matilda on 2 November. This was followed, probably early in 1084, by Robert Curthose's second departure from court, again as a result of strained relations with his father. Matilda's death was an exceptionally serious blow, not only because he is said to have loved her deeply, but because she had often represented William in his absence and had played to the full the traditional role of early medieval queenship, organizing the household, distributing alms, and holding the royal kindred together. Robert's second exile, which lasted until after the king's death, was less significant than the first, since he did not attract support on anything like the same scale as before.

William's movements become very unclear in 1084 and 1085. In the former year, he certainly travelled at some point to Maine to tackle a local insurrection by Hubert, vicomte de Ste Suzanne, eventually leaving the task of reducing the rebel's castle to his military household. He may have visited England in the winter of 1083–4 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that an exceptionally heavy geld of 6s. on the hide was levied. This was undoubtedly related to organizing England's defences against an invasion from Denmark and Flanders which was known to be in preparation. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells not only of exceptionally heavy taxation, but of troop movements on an unprecedented scale. Domesday Book demonstrates that parts of the east coast were ravaged to make a landing unattractive. The anticipated invasion did not, however, take place because the Danish king, Cnut IV, was murdered while at prayer in the church of Odense in July 1085.

The end of the reign

William spent Christmas 1085 at Gloucester. There, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells, in one of its most famous entries, he had 'deep speech with his counsellors about the nature of the kingdom and of the kind of people with which it was peopled' (ASC, s.a. 1085). The result was the Domesday survey. William's reasons for having the survey made and its results written down remain controversial. Its contents suggest above all an interest in resources and, therefore, in general terms in taxation; used selectively, and in specific relation to its basic units of lordship, shire, and hundred, it offered an excellent means to estimate what are traditionally called 'feudal incidents', as well as the general capacity of communities to pay. Although its interest in land disputes is erratic, its value as a record of tenure cannot be dismissed; in all probability it sought not to solve the massive problems consequent on the settlement of a new aristocracy in an alien land, but to set out once and for all who had gained what, with the settlement of disputes being left to the regular workings of the courts. Modern work has clarified greatly how the record was made. Above all, it has demonstrated how all the fundamental communal courts of shire and hundred and the central and local administrative capabilities of the English kingdom were focused for a short time on a single task. Crucial were the willingness of the newcomers to supply information about their lands and the capacity of local communities to supply evidence on oath. The Domesday survey also demonstrates how the newcomers had fostered the basic units of central and local government in England—often, of course, for their own selfish and exploitative purposes.

William travelled around the southern counties while the survey was in progress. The returns were brought to him before he left for Normandy in the autumn—it is, incidentally, unlikely that he saw any of the document now known as Domesday Book, since it is clear that this finished text was produced over a period which lasted into his son's reign. It is indeed possible, as has recently been suggested, that Domesday Book was entirely a product of William II's reign. The returns may well have been brought into William's presence on the occasion of the so-called ‘Salisbury oath’, taken from his tenants-in-chief and their major tenants, on 1 August 1086. A general oath of loyalty of this kind lies within a long early medieval tradition going back to the Carolingian period. Although its 1086 context remains somewhat mysterious, it, along with the Domesday survey, should probably be seen as setting a legal and tenurial seal on the Norman conquest of England. In the minds of William and his chief followers, a long and complex process of settlement and adjustment had been brought to a conclusion.

In the autumn, William left again for Normandy, taking with him, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler grimly noted, as much money as he could, obtained, as was his custom, by fair means and foul. His objective was to counter raids being launched into the Evrecin by King Philippe I from bases in the French Vexin—it is noteworthy how often after 1066 William's preoccupation on one side of the channel had encouraged his enemies on the other side to launch an attack. In this case, his response was notably aggressive. Instead of merely defending the frontier, as had been his normal policy, he claimed that overlordship over the Vexin had been granted to his father by Philippe's father in 1033. There is no trace of such a grant in sources earlier than Orderic Vitalis, even though there is undeniably a history of good relations between the Norman rulers and the counts of the Vexin during the 1020s and 1030s; the counts' known attendance at the Norman ducal court could possibly therefore be constructed in terms of lordship. It is, however, remarkable that William had not made any claim to the county in 1077 when the death of his godson Count Simon had created the circumstances which Philippe was exploiting. His actions in 1086 smack of opportunism. In July 1087 his army advanced into the Vexin and sacked the town of Mantes. But during the sack William was taken ill, either because of the heat, or because the pommel of his saddle ripped into his stomach as his horse tried to jump a ditch. The ailing king was carried back to Rouen and then moved for peace and quiet to the priory of St Gervase outside the city. Surrounded by clergy and magnates, he apparently remained lucid until the end, which came on 9 September. His corpse was transported by river and sea to Caen where he was buried in the abbey church of St Étienne which he himself had founded.

The two chief accounts of the Conqueror's deathbed pose interpretative problems. Orderic Vitalis's long account of the deathbed and the events which followed is filled out with rhetorical speeches. The whole is clearly intended as a parable on the morality or otherwise of the Norman conquest of England and on the vanity of worldly achievement. The earlier anonymous De obitu Willelmi, which may have been written in the last decade of the eleventh century, may well be a literary pastiche intended to illustrate how a great king died, rather than a record with any pretensions to historical accuracy, since it is plagiarized wholesale from two Carolingian sources, with only a small number of names and phrases changed to fit the personnel and circumstances of 1087.

Used carefully, these and other records make it clear that William sought atonement through extensive benefactions to the church and gifts to the poor. There was an amnesty for prisoners, although, according to Orderic, William tried to exclude his brother Odo from this; yielding to supplications, he eventually relented, while prophesying future trouble—here, as elsewhere, Orderic's attribution of foreknowledge to William could owe everything to the author's hindsight. The most acute problems concern the arrangements for the succession. William clearly honoured with great reluctance his promise that the absent Robert would succeed him as duke of Normandy. No source treats the English succession in an entirely clear-cut way. De obitu Willelmi records that he gave his crown and other regalia to his second surviving son, William Rufus. Orderic has him fatalistically leave the English kingdom in God's hands, while at the same time expressing the hope that William Rufus would succeed him and sending a letter to Archbishop Lanfranc ordering him to receive him. If it is accepted that the coronation was constitutive, then this can reasonably be interpreted as a bequest of the English kingdom to William Rufus. The whole issue needs to be set in the context of the permanent state of ambiguity in which William had left the English succession since 1066. There are occasional hints that Robert might have been expected to obtain both Normandy and England, such as his command of the 1080 expedition against Scotland, but no promise was ever made and Robert was too rarely resident in England for his succession to be taken for granted. From the 1070s onwards, the dissensions within the ruling family were such as in all probability to make a clear-cut solution impossible. William would also have been aware that the large cross-channel estate held by William fitz Osbern had been divided on the apparent basis that the first son received the Norman patrimony and the second the English acquisitions. Dividing England and Normandy also fitted into a long-standing Norman tradition whereby landed provision was made for the male siblings of the ducal family.

The man and his rule

A single thigh bone found when William's tomb was opened in 1961 is the basis for the suggestion that he was a tall man, about 5 feet 9 inches in height. He became extremely fat in the final years of his life. One of the few independent sections in the De obitu Willelmi makes it clear that his voice was harsh and rough. All this concurs with statements to the effect that he was physically imposing and with a great deal of anecdotal evidence which demonstrates that he was exceptionally strong; William of Malmesbury, for example, recounts that, while spurring on a horse, he could draw a bow which other men could not even bend. His one well-established pastime was hunting, which in the eleventh century was effectively a means of keeping in trim for war; the creation of large areas of royal forest in England, of which the New Forest is the best-known, was the result. He has no reputation at all for the patronage of letters, although he was not averse to having his achievements widely celebrated in verse.

Unusually for a young early medieval aristocrat, he showed little interest in sexual activity during adolescence, to the extent that William of Malmesbury reported rumours of possible impotence. His marriage to Matilda of Flanders appears to have been a loving one and the king was faithful to her in a way which was unusual in a medieval king. Interestingly, however, all three of their sons who reached adulthood turned out to be dissolute in one way or another. William Rufus was probably his favourite son. He is said by Orderic Vitalis to have treated his eldest son, Robert, contemptuously in public. Orderic also stresses William's generosity, cheerfulness, and magnificence; he was clearly a king who knew the value of display. He followed a chivalric code of behaviour, punishing, for example, those who hacked at Harold's corpse on the field of Hastings and keeping Edgar Ætheling at his court despite a multitude of offences, presumably because he was of royal blood. The faults most often remarked on were greed and cruelty. The former theme was most eloquently developed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler who says that it was William's habit to sell land on very hard terms. The latter is suggested by Guibert de Nogent's comment that it was William's practice to incarcerate prisoners taken in war, whereas other contemporaries ransomed them. The fate of many who opposed William, from counts Gui of Brionne and Guillaume of Arques through to earls Roger of Hereford and Waltheof of Northumbria and the king's own brother Odo, is testimony to his ruthlessness. While the devastation of northern England in 1069–70 arguably replicates the behaviour of some of his English predecessors, the scale and the violence of his actions nevertheless stand out.

Throughout his life William's rule always paid respect to tradition and custom. His charters and, above all, William of Poitiers articulate the philosophy that his authority was legitimately constituted and legitimately justified. Although profoundly conservative, he possessed an energy and an instinctive political intelligence which still seem awesome across a gap of nine hundred years. He was a master at cloaking an act of violence or expediency within a framework of morality and law. In Normandy before 1066 he structured his power on the customary foundations of Norman ducal rule, while shaping a political society which carried all before it in 1066 and the years which followed. The pre-1066 Norman diplomas show a notable increase in the numbers of ducal prepositi and household officers, indicators in general terms of much more intensive administration which undoubtedly drew strength from the prevailing economic growth. The shaping of the Norman aristocracy through selective patronage and forfeiture created a formidable alliance of interest among a small group who dominated Norman and Anglo-Norman society during William's lifetime. Orderic Vitalis, describing the misfortunes of benefactors of his monastery of St Evroult, condemned William's rule in Normandy before 1066 as being at times arbitrary and partisan.

There is no doubt that some of the more authoritarian aspects of William's rule, most notably his insistence on his right selectively to install garrisons in magnates' castles, provoked resentment. The 1050s and 1060s also witnessed the evolution of the close co-operation between ducal government and the church which subsequently became so central to Norman rule in England. The clear-sighted and scholarly Lanfranc was established as William's chief adviser in ecclesiastical matters by the mid-1050s at the latest. Secular and religious authority were formidably combined in pre-1066 Normandy. As a result, a papal legate visited Normandy in 1054 to carry out a canonical deposition of William's uncle Archbishop Malger; not for the last time, the excellent relations which William had with the papacy were turned to political advantage. William and his wife's foundation of the two abbeys of St Étienne and La Trinité of Caen in the late 1050s and early 1060s as a penance for their once-forbidden marriage further enhanced their religious standing. Among the aristocracy, the king's two half-brothers, Bishop Odo and Count Robert of Mortain, and William fitz Osbern, Roger de Montgomery, Roger de Beaumont, William (I) de Warenne, Hugh, earl of Chester, and Richard fitz Gilbert stand out. William was to a degree fortunate in that a churchman of Lanfranc's stature chose to become a monk in Normandy, but the way in which he was employed to boost Normandy's, and William's, reputations in, for example, his missions to Rome of 1050, 1059, and 1066 showed exceptional judgement.

There was no attempt before 1066 to remove the Norman duchy from the orbit of the regnum Francorum nor, after 1066, to make it part of a sort of cross-channel kingdom. Both William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges stress the king's Normanness and several Norman charters triumphantly extol his military achievements as duke of Normandy. William permitted his son's designation as his successor to be confirmed by King Philippe I and, after 1066, in contrast to England, the Laudes were sung in Normandy in praise of the French king. William's post-conquest scheme of cross-channel government was essentially a geographically expanded version of his pre-1066 rule in Normandy, since he relied on his close kindred, most notably Queen Matilda, Bishop Odo, and, until 1071, William fitz Osbern, to act on his behalf. As a result the disintegration of family solidarity in the last ten years of his life caused great trouble. The marriages which he arranged on behalf of his daughters continued the policies of earlier Norman dukes by creating unions with other northern French princely families; Constance was married to Alain, count of Brittany, and Adela to Étienne-Henri, count of Blois. Palpable symbols of authority, such as charters and coins, demonstrated little in the way of integration between Normandy and England, and William's seal was a double-sided one celebrating the power of the rex of the English and the patronus of the Normans. The political and legal traditions of Maine were also respected and treated as distinct; while the restive Manceau aristocracy were quelled in a series of campaigns, their ranks were never culled like their Norman and English counterparts. Although he sought to impose his will on the Welsh and the Scots to guarantee England's security, insisting on an acknowledgement of overlordship and the payment of tribute, and encouraged Lanfranc's attempts to spread ecclesiastical reform to Ireland, he did not seek to extend his kingly authority in the British Isles beyond the lands that his English predecessors had traditionally ruled. His method of dealing with the frontiers of the English kingdom did, however, draw on Norman, rather than English, precedents, since both on the Welsh border and in northern England he supported the establishment of territorial castellanries. Herefordshire (until 1075), Shropshire, and Cheshire became earldoms, the second two certainly on the model of a Norman comté, and their lords were allowed licence to make advances into Welsh territory; this in due course resulted in the subjugation of considerable parts of Wales, but it should not be assumed that this was William's original intention.

In England the attribute of William's rule most praised by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler was his stern enforcement of the traditional kingly responsibility of justice; he was 'stronger than any predecessor of his had been' (ASC, s.a. 1087). His rule was structured around the belief that he was Edward the Confessor's designated heir and he claimed to govern according to the laws of King Edward. Although his visits to England after 1072 were relatively infrequent, they were characterized by a very strong sense of power and majesty. His itinerary largely replicated that of Edward the Confessor and he seems rarely to have advanced north of the old kingdom of Wessex once his authority over the kingdom had been secured. He is known to have worn his crown at his palaces at Winchester, Westminster, and Gloucester on the great religious festivals and, even if he did not always follow the sequence indicated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is the majesty and the theatre which the chronicler's statements imply which are crucial; triumphalism and display are also very evident in his rule in Normandy after 1066. At Caen, Rouen, London, and Winchester he was a great builder, and surviving monuments such as the White Tower in the Tower of London and the western parts of the abbey church of St Étienne of Caen demonstrate the scale and originality of work undertaken on his behalf.

Until very modern times, it was generally argued that William's power in the English kingdom (and as a result the strength of the kingship that he passed on to his successors) was based on the systematic introduction of what was too facilely termed 'feudalism'; the quotas of knight-service agreed between William and his tenants-in-chief and the bishoprics and chief monasteries of the kingdom were seen as the basis for a new kind of feudalized kingship which allowed the king to bind his chief subjects to him by oath and service and to exact so-called feudal incidents, such as reliefs, wardship, and aids. Although the introduction of service quotas and the collection of reliefs and the like were undoubtedly a feature of post-1066 kingship, the core of William's authority resided in the monarchical legacy of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors, and, in particular, in the numerous rights and revenues he had inherited from them, in the all-encompassing power of the king's peace, and in the extensive jurisdictional powers he held.

These latter enabled William to oversee and intervene in the distribution of English land to the Normans and other French; it is above all evident from Domesday Book that a set of principles derived from William's announced status as the Confessor's heir was used to try to contain the land disputes and the local violence which attended the Norman settlement. In the circumstances, it is likely that William's rule was perforce much more interventionist in the English localities than that of his predecessors had ever been, thereby accelerating the centralization of justice and the subsequent creation of the common law which occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The regime established in England by William and his companions has elements which we would now regard as colonial; all significant resources and power were in the hands of a dominant foreign élite. Care was, however, taken to regulate relations between newcomers and natives. The murdrum fine was undoubtedly developed in a way designed to protect the newcomers against guerrilla attacks. On the other hand, solicitude was shown for English women who fled to nunneries to escape either marriage or abduction by the invaders; Lanfranc, with William's concurrence, decreed that they should renounce their vows if they had no vocation. The appearance of Englishmen on juries at the time of the Domesday inquest and their continued employment as moneyers are but two examples of their integration into the new regime and of how their skills were utilized to maintain English administrative practices and legal stability.

William's personal piety was consistently praised by his contemporaries. Even that stern critic of kings, Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–85), wrote that he was pre-eminent among kings and expressed admiration for his devotion to the moral and spiritual welfare of the church. In both Normandy and England he presided at and gave support to ecclesiastical synods which legislated in (it must be said) a rather cautious way for the good organization of the church and the extirpation of the perceived abuses of simony and clerical marriage; foremost among these were the series of councils held in England by Lanfranc from 1072 onwards and the 1080 Council of Lillebonne in Normandy. He was a major patron of monasteries, himself founding two great abbeys at St Étienne of Caen and Battle, and making donations to a host of other churches. His life is characterized by dramatic acts of atonement, such as the penitential foundation of the two abbeys, the holding of great consecration ceremonies at strategic moments, and acts of restitution such as his gifts to the cathedral church of Le Mans after his troops had damaged it during the siege of 1073. He was capable of extravagant religious display, prostrating himself in total humility, for example, before Archbishop Ealdred of York and the legate of Hugh, the great abbot of Cluny. After becoming king he was an ecclesiastical patron on an extensive scale, giving gifts to many churches in France and, for example, financing the construction of a tower at the great abbey of St Denis.

William's policy towards the church within his lands and towards the papacy has been somewhat distorted by the commentary on the later quarrels between Anselm and kings William II and Henry I by the monk Eadmer of Canterbury. Throughout his life William believed it to be his right to dominate and safeguard the welfare of the church within his territories, expecting the papacy to support him when required. He respected papal authority and canon law as he understood it, as long as it did not infringe his customary prerogatives; thus, for example, he accepted fully that ultimate jurisdiction over the primacy dispute between Canterbury and York lay with the papacy, just as the deposition of bishops was something which could only be done by the papacy. He worked closely with Alexander II, and his collaboration with many of the goals of the reforming papacy stood him in good stead with Gregory VII. The suggestion that he deliberately excluded papal authority from his territories and restricted contact with Rome derives principally from new circumstances and policies initiated during the pontificate of Gregory VII. Gregorian novelties, such as the demand for fealty and the request that Lanfranc visit Rome regularly, were resisted; once more, as numerous texts make clear, William's rule was being structured around the traditional rights of English kingship. Conduct of Anglo-Norman relations with the papacy became more circumspect. In due course, as Lanfranc's letters to the anti-pope Clement III make clear, once the emperor Henry IV had attacked Rome and sponsored an anti-pope, William and Lanfranc took it upon themselves to organize the church within the Anglo-Norman lands themselves while the spiritual leadership of Christianity was in doubt.


The Conqueror's death was followed by the collapse of order in Normandy and, within months, by the outbreak of a war of succession between his sons. Both were directly related to William's excessively authoritarian rule within the duchy and his inability to resolve problems within his family. The cohesion of the ducal and royal kindred and of the Norman aristocratic class had been quite exceptional during the period of William's rule. In sociological terms, the breakdown of the last decade of his life was, however, of a kind which resembled earlier crises in Norman history. In the same way, he failed to solve the (probably insoluble) problems associated with Normandy's place within the French kingdom. Paradoxically, the conquest of England magnified many problems by extending geographically the networks of potential hostility. His basic achievement can, however, be perceived within this confusion in that he created the circumstances which made his sons wish to continue his cross-channel realm. A very capable soldier and a formidable personality, his great qualities surely lie in the will and determination which allowed him to sustain a war of conquest over six years and then to maintain overall control over the settlement of a new aristocracy and the start of the integration of native and newcomer.


  • The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, ed. and trans. R. H. C. Davis and M. Chibnall, OMT (1998)
  • The Gesta Normannorum ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. E. M. C. van Houts, 2 vols., OMT (1992–5)
  • William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum / The history of the English kings, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom, 2 vols., OMT (1998–9)
  • A. Farley, ed., Domesday Book, 2 vols. (1783)
  • M. Fauroux, ed., Recueil des actes des ducs de Normandie de 911 à 1066 (Caen, 1961)
  • Les actes de Guillaume le Conquérant et de la reine Mathilde pour les abbayes caennaises, ed. L. Musset (Caen, 1967)
  • D. Whitelock, M. Brett, and C. N. L. Brooke, eds., Councils and synods with other documents relating to the English church, 871–1204, 2 (1981)
  • The letters of Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, ed. and trans. H. Clover and M. Gibson, OMT (1979)
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  • coins, BM, NPG
  • embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry), Bayeux, France [see illus.]
  • wax seal, BL
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
John of Worcester, ed. R. R. Darlington & P. McGurk, trans. J. Bray & P. McGurk, 2–3; OMT (1995–) [vol. 1 forthcoming]
Proceedings of the British Academy
English Historical Review
Oxford Medieval Texts
Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. M. Chibnall, 6 vols., OMT (1969–80); repr. (1990)