William the Conqueror

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William the Conqueror
William Conqueror2.jpg

William the Conqueror was born in the wooden castle of Falaise in Normandy in 1027 or 1028. His father was Robert “the Magnificent”, the sixth Duke of Normandy and his mother was Herleve, the daughter of a rich merchant, Fulbert the Tanner. Herleve is sometimes called Arlette which was Robert’s pet name for her. Because they had been married in the old fashioned Viking way while Robert’s father was duke, the Christian Church did not recognise the marriage as legal. This was not a problem because many people were married in the “Danish fashion” and Robert had an older brother, Richard, who would succeed his father. The problem came when Richard died soon after becoming duke and Robert was his heir. Herleve was not thought to be a suitable wife for the new Duke and so she was married off to one of Richard’s followers, Herluin de Conteville, while her father was given the important position of chamberlain of the ducal household.

William succeeded his father as Duke in 1035 when Robert died while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At first he was looked after by his great-uncle Robert, the Archbishop of Rouen, and then by a succession of guardians until he was recognised as a man in his own right and knighted by the French king, Henry I in 1042. He was more usually refered to as William the Bastard or William II, seventh Duke of Normandy.

He married Mathilde of Flanders in 1051, which caused much trouble with the French king, who thought that Normandy and Flanders joined by marriage would threaten his western borders. Pope Leo IX was against the marriage because they were distantly related, although this was really a political objection; his successor Pope Nicholas II accepted the marriage on condition that they build two churches in the city of Caen - L’Abbaye aux Hommes and L’Abbaye aux Dames.

William believed that he should be king of England because his cousin, Edward the Confessor, had promised him that he should succeed him in return for all the support the Normans had given him in his youth. Edward’s mother had also been William’s great-aunt. He also claimed that Harald Godwinsson had sworn to help him become king and this is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry which is a record of events - from the Norman point of view - leading up to William’s victory at Hastings. One of the problems associated with this argument is that the English crown was elective rather than hereditary. Nevertheless William was supported by the Pope because the Church wanted the new reforms to be brought into England and the English were resisting them. William was crowned William I, King of England, on Christmas Day 1066. The title is interesting because until this point kings had been kings of the English – the people – rather than of England – the land. William continued to be Duke of Normandy and made no attempt to join the two lands into one.

He died on 9 September 1087 in the capital of Normandy, Rouen. He had suffered for a month, his stomach had been ruptured when he was pitched forward onto the high pommel of his saddle as he was riding through the burning streets of Mantes, near Paris. His enemies on this occasion were the King of France and his own eldest son, Robert Curthose, who was in revolt against him. Nevertheless, he left Normandy to Robert, who became Duke Robert II, and England to his second son William Rufus, who became King William II.

His third son Henry was perhaps the cleverest of his family and he managed events so well that he succeeded both his brothers and, just like his father, governed the two lands separately.

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