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William I (the Conqueror)
Biography



WILLIAM I. (1027 or 1028-1087), king of England, surnamed the Conqueror, was born in 1027 or 1028. He was the bastard son of Robert the Devil, duke of Normandy, by Arietta, the daughter of a tanner at Falaise. In 1034. Robert resolved on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Having no legitimate son he induced the Norman barons to acknowledge William as his successor. They kept their engagement when Robert died on his journey (1035). though the young duke-elect was a mere boy. But the next twelve years was a period of the wildest anarchy. Three of William's guardians were murdered; and for some time he was kept in strict concealment by his relatives, who feared that he might experience the same fate. Trained in a hard school, he showed a precocious aptitude for war and government. He was but twenty years old when he stamped out, with the help of his overlord, Henry I. of France, a serious rising in the districts of the Bessin and Cotentin, the object of which was to put in his place his kinsman, Guy of Brionne. Accompanied by King Henry, he met and overthrew the rebels at Val-des-Dunes near Caen (1047). It was by no means his last encounter with Norman traitors, but for the moment the victory gave him an assured position. Next year he joined Henry in attacking their common enemy, Geoffrey Martel, count of Anjou. Geoffrey occupied the bolder fortress of Alenson with the good will of the inhabitants. But the duke recovered the place after a severe siege, and inflicted a terrible vengeance on the defenders, who had taunted him with his base birth; he also captured the castle of Domfront from the Angevins (1049).

In 1051 the duke visited England, and probably received from his kinsman, Edward the Confessor, a promise of the English succession. Two years later he strengthened the claims which he had thus established by marrying Matilda, a daughter of Baldwin V. of Flanders, who traced her descent in the female line from Alfred the Great. This union, took place in defiance of a prohibition which had been promulgated, in 1049, by the papal council of Reims. But the affinity of William and Matilda was so remote that political rather than moral considerations may have determined the pope's action. The marriage was zealously opposed by Archbishop Malger of Rouen and Lanfranc, the prior of Bec; but Lanfranc was persuaded to intercede with the Curia, and Pope Nicholas II. at length granted the needful dispensation (1059). By way of penance William and his wife founded the abbeys of St Stephen and the Holy Trinity at Caen. The political difficulties caused by the marriage were more serious. Alarmed at the close connexion of Normandy with Flanders, Henry I. renounced the alliance which had long existed between the Capets and the house of Rollo. He joined forces with Geoffrey Martel in order to crush the duke, and Normandy was twice invaded by the allies. In each case William decided the campaign by a signal victory. The invasion of 1054 was checked by the battle of Mortemer; in 1058 the French rearguard was cut to pieces at Varaville on the Dive, in the act of crossing the stream. Between these two wars William aggrandised his power at the expense of Anjou by annexing Mayenne. Soon after the campaign of Varaville both Henry I. and Geoffrey Martel were removed from his path by death (1060). He at once recovered Maine from the Angevins, nominally in the interest of Herbert II., the lawful count, who became his vassal. In 1062, however, Herbert died and Maine was formally annexed to Normandy. This acquisition brought the Norman frontier almost to the Loire and isolated Brittany, long coveted by the Norman dukes, from the rest of France.

About 1064 the accidental visit of Harold to the Norman court added another link to the chain of events by which William's fortunes were connected with England. Whatever doubt hangs over the details of the story, it seems clear that the earl made a promise to support the claims of his host upon the English succession. This promise be was invited to fulfil in 1066, after the Confessor's death and his own coronation. Harold's perjury formed the chief excuse for the Norman Conquest of England, which in reality was a piratical venture resembling that of the sons of Tancred d'Hauteville in Lower Italy. William had some difficulty in securing the help of his barons. When consulted in a great council at Lillebonne they returned an unfavourable reply, and it was necessary to convince them individually by threats and persuasions. Otherwise the conditions were favourable. William secured the benevolent neutrality of the emperor Henry IV.; the influence of the archdeacon Hildebrand obtained for the expedition the solemn approval of Pope Alexander II. Philip I. of France was a minor under the guardianship of William's father-in-law, the count of Flanders. With Tostig, the banished brother of Harold, William formed an alliance which proved of the utmost service. The duke and his Normans were enabled, by Tostig's invasion of northern England, to land unmolested at Pevensey on the 28th of September 1066. On the 14th of October a crushing defeat was inflicted on Harold at the battle of Senlac or Hastings; and on Christmas Day William was crowned at Westminster.

Five years more were to elapse before he became master of the west and north. Early in 1067 he made a progress through parts of the south, receiving submissions, disposing of the lands of those who had fought against him, and ordering castles to be built; he then crossed the Channel to celebrate his triumph in Normandy. Disturbances at once occurred in Northumbria, on the Welsh marches and in Kent; and he was compelled to return in December. The year 1068 was spent in military expeditions against Exeter and York, in both of which the adherents of Harold had found a welcome. In 1069 Robert of Comines, a Norman to whom William had given the earldom of Northumberland, was murdered by the English at Durham; the north declared for Edgar Atheling, the last male representative of the West-Saxon dynasty; and Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark sent a fleet to aid the rebels. Joining forces, the Danes and English captured York, although it was defended by two Norman castles. The position seemed critical; but, fortunately for the king, the south and west gave no effective support to the rebellion. Marching rapidly on York he drove the Danes to their ships; and the city was then reduced by a blockade. The king ravaged the country as far north as Durham with such completeness that, traces of devastation were still to be seen sixty years later. But the English leaders were treated with politic clemency, and the Danish leader, Jarl Osbiorn, was bribed to withdraw his fleet. Early in 1070 the reduction of the north was completed by a march over the moors to Chester, which had not hitherto submitted but was now placed under an earl of William's choice. From this point we hear no more of general rebellions against the foreign rule. In 1071 a local rising in the fens caused some trouble. An outlawed Englishman, Hereward by name, fortified the Isle of Ely and attracted a number of desperate spirits to his side; amongst others came Morcar, formerly earl of Northumbria, who had been disappointed in the hopes which he based on William's personal favour. The king in person undertook the siege of Ely, which proved unexpectedly difficult. But the failure of the insurgents was a foregone conclusion.

Of the measures which William took to consolidate his authority we have many details; but the chronological order of his proceedings is obscure. The redistribution of land appears to have proceeded pari passu with the reduction of the country; and at every stage of the conquest each important follower received a new reward. Thus were formed the vast but straggling fiefs which are recorded in Domesday. The great earldoms of the West-Saxon period were allowed to lapse; the new earls, for the most part closely connected with William by the ties of blood or friendship, were lords of single shires; and only on the marches of the kingdom was the whole of the royal jurisdiction delegated to such feudatories. William's writs show not only that he kept intact the old system of governing through the sheriffs and the courts of shire and hundred, but also that he found it highly serviceable. Those whom he enfeoffed with land held it according to the law of Norman feudalism, which was already becoming precise. They were thus brought into close personal relations with the king. But he forced the most powerful of them to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the ancient local courts; and the old fyrd-system was maintained in order that the crown might not be wholly dependent on feudal levies. Though his forest-laws and his heavy taxation caused bitter complaints, William soon won the respect of his English subjects. They appear to have accepted him as the lawful heir of the Confessor; and they regarded him as their natural protector against feudal oppression. This is to be explained by his regard for legal forms, by his confirmation of the "laws of Edward " and by the support which he received from the church. Domesday Book shows that in his confiscations he can have paid little attention to abstract justice. Almost every English landholder of importance was dispossessed, though only those who had actually borne arms against William should have been so treated. As far as possible Englishmen were excluded from all responsible positions both in church and state. After 1071 our accounts of William's doings become jejune and disconnected. Much of his attention must have been engrossed by the work of administration, carried on without the help of those elaborate institutions, judicial and financial, which were perfected by Henry I. and Henry II. William had few ministers of note. William Fitz Osbern, earl of Hereford, who had been his right-hand man in Normandy, fell in the civil wars of Flanders (1071). Odo, bishop of Bayeux, William's half-brother, lost favour and was finally thrown into prison on a charge of disloyalty (1082). Another half-brother, Robert of Mortain, earl of Cornwall, showed little capacity. Of the king's sons Robert, though titular count of Maine, was kept in leading strings; and even William Rufus, who was in constant attendance on his father, never held a public office. The Conqueror reposed much confidence in two prelates, Lanfranc of Canterbury and Geoffrey of Coutances. They took an active part in the civil no less than the ecclesiastical government. But the king himself worked hard in hearing lawsuits, in holding councils and ceremonious courts, in travelling between England and Normandy, and finally in conducting military operations.

In 1072 he undertook a campaign against Malcolm, king of Scots, who had married Margaret, the sister of Edgar Atheling, and was inclined to promote English rebellions. When William reached the Forth his adversary submitted, did homage as a vassal, and consented to expel Edgar Atheling, who was subsequently endowed with an English estate and admitted to William's favour. From Scotland the king turned to Maine, which had profited by the troubles of 1069 to expel the Norman garrisons. Since then the Manceaux had fallen out among themselves. The barons supported Azo of Liguria, the lawful successor of Herbert II.; the citizens of Le Mans set up a commune, expelled Azo's representatives and made war on the barons. William had therefore no difficulty in reducing Ihe country, even though Le Mans was assisted by Fulk of Anjou (1073). In 1075 the king's attention was claimed by a conspiracy of the earls of Hereford and Norfolk, in which the Englishman Waltheof, earl of Northampton, was implicated to some degree. The rebels were defeated by Lanfranc in the king's absence: but William returned to settle the difficult question of their punishment, and to stamp out the last sparks of disaffection. The execution of Walthcof, though strictly in accordance with the English law of treason, was a measure which he sanctioned after long hesitation, and probably from considerations of expediency rather than justice. This severity to a man who was generally thought innocent, is one of the dark stains on his career. In 1076 he invaded Brittany to get possession of the fugitive earl of Norfolk; but Philip of France came to the aid of the Bretons, and William gave way before his suzerain. The next few years were troubled by a quarrel between the king and his eldest son. Robert fled from Normandy and after aimless wanderings obtained from King Philip the castle of Gerberoi, in the Beauvaisis, from which he harassed the Norman marches. William besieged Gerberoi in 1079, and was wounded in single combat by his son. A little later they were reconciled; but the reconciliation was short-lived; to the end of the reign Robert was a source of trouble. In the years 1083-1085 there was a second rising in Maine which was not laid to rest until William had granted liberal terms to the leader, Hubert of Beaumont. In 1085 news arrived that Cnut the Saint, king of Denmark, was preparing to assert the claims of his house in England. The project fell through, but gave occasion for the famous moot at Salisbury in which William took an oath of direct allegiance from " all the land-sitting men that were in England " (1086). While the danger was still impending he took in hand the compilation of Domesday Book. The necessary inquiries were ordered at the Christmas Council of 1085, and carried out in the following year. It is probable that William never saw the Domesday Book as we possess it, since he left England in the summer of 1086 and never returned. In 1087 he invaded the French Vexin to retaliate on the garrison of Mantes for raids committed on his territory. He sacked and burned the town. But as he rode out to view the ruins his horse plunged on the burning cinders and inflicted on him an internal injury. He was carried in great suffering to Rouen and there died on the 9th of September 1087. He was buried in St Stephen's at Caen. A plain slab still marks the place of his tomb, before the high altar; but his bones were scattered by the Huguenots in 1562.

In a profligate age William was distinguished by the purity of his married life, by temperate habits and by a sincere piety. His most severe measures were taken in cold blood, as part of his general policy; but his natural disposition was averse to unnecessary bloodshed or cruelty. His one act of wanton devastation, the clearing of the New Forest, has been grossly exaggerated. He was avaricious, but his church policy (see article english history) shows a disinterestedness as rare as it was honourable. In personal appearance he was tall and corpulent, of a dignified presence and extremely powerful physique, with a bald forehead, close-cropped hair and short moustaches.

By Matilda, who died in Normandy on the 3rd of November 1083. William had four sons, Robert, duke of Normandy, Richard, who was killed whilst hunting, and the future kings, William II. and Henry I., and five or six daughters, including Adela, who married Stephen, count of Blois.

Of the original authorities the most important are the Gesta Willelmi, by William of Poitiers (cd. A. Duchesne in Historiae Normannorum scripteres, Paris, 1610); the Winchester, Worcester and Peterborough texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ed. B. Thorpe, "Rolls" series, 2 vols., 1861, and also C. Hummer, 2 vols., Oxford, 1892-1899); William of Malmesbury's De gestis regum (cd. W. Stubbs, "Rolls" series, 2 vols., 1887-1889); William of Jumieges' Historia Normannoram (ed. A. Duchcsne, op. cit.); Ordericus Vitalis' Historic ecclesiastica (ed. A. le Prevost, Soc. de l'historie de France, 5 vol., Paris, 1838-1855). Of modern works the most elaborate is E. A. Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest, vols. iii.-v. (Oxford, 1870-1876). Domesday Book was edited in 1783- 1816 by H. Farley and Sir H. Ellis in four volumes. Of commentaries the following are important: Domesday Studies (ed. P. E. Dove, 2 vols.. London. 1888-1891); Feudal England, by J. H. Round (London, 1895); Domesday Book and Beyond, by F. W. Maitland (Cambridge, 1807); English Society in the Eleventh Century, by P. Vinogradoff (Oxford, 1908). See also F. M. Stenton, William the Conqueror (1908). (H. W. C. D.)

contributed by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911


12 April 2006
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