William the Conqueror (or William I) ruled over England for twenty one years and over Normandy for fifty two. He became Duke of Normandy in his childhood and later carried out the audacious conquest of England which changed the country forever. Here are 10 interesting facts about William I, the Norman king of England.
#1 William was an illegitimate son and people called him William the Bastard
William was most likely born in the year 1028. He was the only son born to the Duke of Normandy, Robert I. His mother Herleva never married Robert. Instead she went on to marry Herluin de Conteville with whom she had four children. Although, today William is known as the Conqueror, through most part of his life, his contemporaries referred to him as William the Bastard due to his illegitimate birth. Even today, he is sometimes referred to by that name.
#2 William became Duke of Normandy when he was eight
Robert I died in 1035 but before that he had made his noblemen pledge allegiance to his son. Despite his tender age and illegitimate birth, William became the Duke of Normandy with the support of his great-uncle, Archbishop Robert, as well as the king of France, Henry I. He was only 8 years old.
#3 Henry I of France fought for and against William
After the death of Archbishop Robert, Normandy descended to anarchy. Four guardians of William were killed by those who wanted power but William survived. King Henry knighted him in 1042 while he was still in his teens. He also helped William defeat his opponents in the Battle of Val-es-Dunes. However, after William’s power began to grow Henry started considering him as a threat. In 1054 and 1057, he went to war against William to conquer Normandy but William defeated him on both occasions.
#4 His wife initially refused to marry him due to his illegitimate birth
William’s representative went to the daughter of Count of Flanders, Matilda to ask her hand for William. She not only refused but went to the extent of saying that she was too high born to consider marrying a bastard. Legend says that William rode to her place, dragged her off her horse by her long braids, threw her down in front of her attendants and rode off. Matilda responded by saying she would marry no one but William. They married sometime in the early 1050s. Matilda bore William at least nine children (possibly 10), including two kings, William II and Henry I. There is no evidence that William was ever unfaithful to Matilda and their marriage is considered successful. When she died in 1083, William went into a deep depression.
#5 William defeated Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings
In 1051, King Edward of England, who was childless, chose William as his successor as he was his first cousin. However after the death of Edward, his brother-in-law, the powerful English earl Harold Godwinson was crowned as England’s new king in January 1066. After defeating the invaders under his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada, Harold Godwinson marched to deal with the Norman invasion under William. The Normans under William decisively defeated and killed Harold in the Battle of Hastings. Although the English didn’t surrender, William crushed the remaining resistance and was crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066. It is interesting to note that he didn’t know how to speak English.
#6 He carried out the Harrying of the North
In 1069, Edgar the Atheling, the last remaining person with a claim to throne of England, joined forces with the Danes and was able to take hold of the north from William. William responded by devastating the countryside in the north and paying off the Danes to return back home. To eliminate possibility of further revolt, William’s army continued slaughtering people and destroying all means of food production. Thousands of people died due to these campaigns and the famine that followed. This 1069-1070 devastation of northern England under the orders of William is called ‘Harrying of the North’.
#7 William was responsible for the Doomsday Book
In 1085, William ordered for a survey to access the landholdings throughout his kingdom. The survey was completed in 1086 and resulted in what is known as the Doomsday Book. It consists of listings which describe who owned the land, its value, its tax assessment etc. The assessment by William’s men of the landholding was final and could not be challenged and hence the name Doomsday Book as ‘its decisions, like those of the Last Judgment, are unalterable’. The Doomsday book is the oldest public record of such a large territory in the history of Europe.
#8 He died because his horse reared up
William died on September 9, 1087 due to an infection caused due to a wound. Six weeks earlier, during his attempt to capture the French town of Mantes, his horse reared up which resulted in throwing him so forcefully against the saddle pommel that it ruptured his internal organs. William divided his lands between two of his sons, with Robert receiving Normandy and William Rufus, England.
#9 His made the name William popular in England
The name William is a French name which is composed of ‘wil’ (desire) and ‘helm’ (protection). It was introduced to England by William the Conqueror and instantly became very popular. By the thirteenth century, it was the most common name given to male child in England. Even today, it ranks eighth.
#10 England changed drastically, and permanently, due to his Conquest
William’s conquest of England changed England forever. Some of the changes like that to its language, aristocracy, culture and the Church have persisted till modern times. According to historian Richard Southern the Conquest was the single most radical change in European history between the Fall of Rome and the 20th century.