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"He was a man of craft, courage and far-seeing plans."

William the Conqueror

William The Conqueror wore a crown and a coronet. The former was as King of England; the latter as Duke of Normandy. While his reputation as king was considerable, it was a duke that he won greater fame and reknown on the continent. There we must seek his roots and his resting place.

Birthplace of William the Conqueror
Falaise, France

William's father was Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy. Robert's eye was caught by Harlette, the lowly but lovely tanner's daughter, washing her laundry at a well in Falaise. In the words of Winston Churchill, "his love was instantly charged." The offspring of this unlikely union who was born in Falaise in 1027 became William the Conqueror.

Map of Falaise

Prior to his death on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Robert beseeched the nobles of Normandy to accept as their lord his son William. When William came of age and assumed power, some barons sought to unseat him by rebelling. William quickly and savagely routed the rebels and firmly asserted his rights to the Duchy of Normandy. William then proceeded to enlarge his inherited power by force of arms. During an assault on Alencon, the besieged townsmen ill-advisedly hung hides over their walls, a contemptuous allusion to his grandfather's trade. They paid dearly for their derision. William subsequently gouged out the eyes and cut off the hands and feet of his prisoners and catapulted them into the terrified town. The Norman nobles liked what they saw and basked in the brutality of his reign which resulted in their duchy prospering.

William was a tall, dark-skinned individual with receding hair, broad-shoulders and a firm face adorned with a thin, twirling moustache. A mixture of compassion and cruelty, William could be harsh and unyielding and his violent temper found always in the forefront of battle "dealing great slaugher with sword and malace."

In William's home town of Falaise, a magnificent mounted statue of him adorns a cobblestone square in the heart of this Norman city. Nearby is Trinity church, an ancient and very impressive structure, whose bullet-scared walls recall another time of combat and carnage, when in 1944 Canadian soldiers fought to liberate Falaise from the Germans. Some of the soldiers may very well have been distant descendants of the Normans.

William The Conqueror
Photo on right by G. Wilson

William The Conqueror

Trinity Church
photo by G. Wilson

At the age of 26 William fell in love with the tiny, beautiful twenty-two year old Matilda, the daughter of Baldwin, Count of Flanders. She dismissed his offer of marriage indicatng she was too highborn to marry a bastard. He was not the sort to take no for an answer. It was said that William dragged Matilda by the hair into the mud, kicking and beating her until she agreed to be his wife! Their marriage was denounced by the church because they were cousins. Despite its rather inauspicious beginning, the marriage proved to be a most successful one. Initially, she had been dismissed by his subjects as just William's 'gebedde' (bedfellow), but she endeared herself to them by softening his severe behaviour and by her "just" and "prudent" character.

Hot-tempered William I of England

William and Matilda had four sons and six daughters, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Her tomb was discovered at the the Abbey of La Trinite and opened in 1960-61. Measurements confirmed she was indeed diminutive being only 1.46 metres (4 ft. 2 in.) tall.

Statue of Maltilda in the gardens of Paris's Palais de Luxembourg

Matilda was a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great (849, ruled 871-899) through his daughter, Elstrith. Elstrith married Baldwin II of Flanders whose son Arnold the Great was the immediate ancestor of Matilda. Born about 1031 Elstrith was well educated and reknowned for her learning as well as for her beauty.

Alfred the Great

Towards the end of his life as a penance for his passions and to be reconciled with the Church, William founded in Caen the famous Abbaye Aux Hommes (Men's Abbey) with these words.

"I, William, King of England, prince of Normandy and Maine, have decided to order the building of a monastery in honour of God and of the blessed St. Stephen in the town popularly designated by the name of Caen for the salvation of my soul and the souls of my wife and my children and my family."

Abbaye aux Hommes
photo by G. Wilson

Saint-Etienne Abbey Church
During WW II the Abbey provided shelter for many civilians and was spared by the Allies while 80% of Caen was destroyed.
photo by G.Wilson

Elstrith founded Abbaye aux Dames (Ladies' Abbey).

Abbaye aux Dames

French War Memorial in Caen
photo by G. Wilson

Pathway in Caen that parallels the street on which the
French War Memorial is located.
photo by G. Wilson

Caen Statues
photo by G. Wilson

The fabled story has been preserved for all time for all to see in the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, a tourist town whose greatest glory is the Bayeux Tapestry. It contains the embroidered tale of the Conqueror's conquest. On fine linen cloth 50 cm wide and 70 cm in length, eight different coloured wools were used to depict in 60 scenes a yarn albeit biased which was intended for the enlightenment of the uneducated masses. This 916 year-old embroidery, the world's first strip cartoon, is amazingly well preserved.

Tapestry Museum in Bayeux
photo by G. Wilson

Prior to his death, Edward the Confessor sent Harold to inform William that he , William, was to succeed to the throne of England when Edward died.

Edward sending Harold to William with word of his eventual succession to the throne of England.

Edward the Confessor's Tomb
photo by

Harold Swearing Fealty to William

The first interesting example of this is regarding the circumstances where William secures Harold's oath of allegiance - a central issue concerning the reason for the Invasion.

In Wace's version the text runs as follows.

"To receive the oath, he caused a parliament to be called. It is commonly said that it was at Bayeux. He sent for all the holy bodies thither and put so many of them together as to fill a whole chest and then covered them with a pall, but Harold neither saw them, nor knew of their being there. Nought was shewn or told to him about it......When Harold placed his hand upon it, the hand trembled and the flesh quivered; but he swore and promised upon his oath to take Ele to wife and to deliver up England to the Duke.... after the death of Edward, if he should live, so help him God and the holy relics there! Many cried "God grant it." [and when Harold had kissed the saints and had risen upon et, the duke]

"But after rosy dawn brightened the lands and sun cast beams over the world, you (William) gave command to set course and make sail, ordering that the vessels should weigh anchor. When you reached safe landing-places, leaving the sea astern, the third hour of day was rising over the earth." "Robbed of her terrified inhabitants, the land destined for you joyfully received you and yours in a calm bay.." "They formed together on the shore, each armed upon his warhorse. All had their swords girded on, and passed into the plain with their lances raised""

Then they cast out of the ships the materials, and drew them to land, all shaped framed and pierced to receive the pins which they had brought, cut and ready in large barrels; so that before evening had well set in, they had finished a fort. Then you might see them make their kitchens, light their fires, and cook their meat. The duke sat down to eat, and the barons and knights had food in plenty; for he had brought ample store. All ate and drank enough, and were right glad that they were ashore(23a)

Then he ordered proclamation to be made, and commanded the sailors that the ships should be dismantled, and drawn ashore and pierced, that the cowards might not have ships to flee."

"A knight of that country heard the noise and cry made by the peasants and villains when they saw the great fleet arrive. He well knew that the Normans were come, and that their object was to seize the land. He posted himself behind a hill, so that they should not see him, and tarried there, watching the arrival of the great fleet. He saw the archers come forth from the ships, and the knights follow. He saw the carpenters with their axes, and the host of people and troops. He saw the men throw the materials for the fort out of the ships. He saw them build up and enclose the fort, and dig a fosse (53) around it. He saw them land the shields and armour. And as he beheld all this, his spirit was troubled; and he girt his sword and took his lance, saying that he would go straightway to king Harold, and tell the news. Forthwith he set out on his way, resting late and rising early; and thus he journeyed on by night and by day to seek Harold his lord.

"Fearing to lose the ships, you surrounded them with earthworks and guarded the shores. You restored the dismantled forts which had stood there formerly and set custodians to hold them. Having gained control, though over

"The corpses of the English, strewn upon the ground, he left to be devoured by worms and wolves, by birds and dogs. Harold's dismembered body gathered together, and wrapped what he had gathered in fine purple linen; and returning to his camp by the sea, he bore it with him, that he might carry out the customary funeral rites.(29) " no great space, your people attacked the region, laid it to waste, and burnt it with fire." "For a fortnight William remained in the camp at the port of Hastings and from there he directed his march towards Dover." (22a)

Despite the fact that he swore fealty to William, Harold had no intention of abandoning his own claims to the throne of England. When Edward the Confessor died and was buried in his creation, Westminster Abbey, which was to become the shrine and tomb of England's genius, the tall, handsome, gallant reckless Harold was elected king at the age of thirty-one. No sooner was he crowned than a crisis occurred when Harold received word in England that William, Duke of Normandy, had claimed the throne as his own based on the pledge made by Edward the Confessor. The crisis led to a conflict when William prepared for war.

In September 1066 William's armada of 1400 vessels sailed from Normandy. On September 27 William waded ashore at Pevensey on the south coast of England and promptly fell flat on his face. No one laughed. Rising he turned and quipped, "You see, I have grasped England with both my hands."

William The Conqueror lands at Pevensey in the flagship The Mora, which had been commissioned by Matilda for her husband's invasion of England in 1066.

On the 5th of January 1066, Edward the Confesor, King of England, died. The next day the Witan (council of high ranking men) elected Hardold Godwin, Earl of Essex (Edward's brother-in-law) to succeed him. The crown had hardly touched his head, when Harold's problems began. Such was his sibling rivalry, that King Harold's brother, Tostig, had formed an alliance with Harold,Hardrada, King of Norway, and both were planning an invasion of England. When he learned of this in 1066, King Harold gathered a force of his professionaal bodyguard and the pick of his Wessex fighting men, hastened north to Todcaster. On 24 September he seized the opportunity to catch his foe offguard. After a bitter, bloody battle at Stamford Bridge on 25 September, he won a decisive victory. Both Harold Hardrada and Tostig were killed.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Meanwhile some three hundred kilometres away on 1 October, another greater threat to his kingdome landed at Pevensey. News of the unexpected Norman invasion force took at least three or four days to reach Harold at Yorkshire, where he hurriedly re-assembled his forces to meet this new threat.

The two armies met at Senlac near Hastings on October 14 and fought for nine hours. At first the two-handed Saxon battleaxes sliced through the armour of the Norman knights.

Slowly, however, the Normans gained control. When Harold's eye was pierced by an arrow, he fell blinded by blood. Pounced upon by Norman knights, he was summarily dismembered. One severed his head, another a leg and a third scattered his entrails afield. When Harold's soldiers saw their leader fall, they fled. William I, now truly called the conqueror, was crowned William, King of England on Christmas Day 1066.

William versus Harold; Harold loses

William ruled his new kingdom with a masterly mixture of force, piety, subtlety, legality and fraud and divided his time between England and Normandy. In an attempt to take advantage of his absence from England, several thanes in the west and north of England attempted to incite a rebellion. When William returned, he "passed like a flame of revenge through the land", ravaging the north with savagry and the devastation of homes, barns, crops, and cattle that it was said northern England never fully recovered from the rampage for decades. William reserved large tracts of land for hunting and razed houses, churches and schools to make way for his horses and hounds. Any one who dared to kill a hart or hind in his New Forest lost his eyes.

William organized his new kingdom using an elaborate hierarchy of military nobility. He distributed the choicest lands among his Norman aides and encouraged the construction of great fortresses to defend against a hostile population. To list his spoils he had compiled the "Domesday Book" (so named as the final 'doom' or judgement in all disputes of realty) which listed all lands, fiefs and prerogatives of the king. His agents travelled the country and according to the old Chronicle, "so narrowly did he commission them that there was not a yard of land, nay ... not even an ox nor a cow nor a swine that was not set down in his writ." William assembled all important landowners to a meeting in Salisbury where he made every man pledge his fealty to the king.

William found it easier to rule his kingdom than his family and his last years were filled with quarrels with his wife and sons. He grew so obese that he could hardly mount a horse. At the siege of Mantes he destroyed homes and burned crops and as he rode exaltantly amidst its ruins, his horse stumbled and William fell heavily against the pommel seriously injuring himself.He had killed and maimed many during the course of his savage life and fearing what would follow, he ordered all his treasures to be distributed among the churches and the poor and made this confession on his deathbed in 1087. [Quoted by Ordericus Vitalis in The Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)]

"I tremble my friends when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was bred to arms from my childhood and am stained from the rivers of blood I have shed. It is out of my power to count all the injuries which I have caused during the sixty-four years of my troubled life." He commended his soul to Virgin and Mother Mary, "that by her holy prayers she may reconcile me to her Son, my Lord Jesus Christ"

He was removed to Rouen where early on the morning of 9 September 1087 the tolling bells of the city's churches told of his death. William requested interment in the chancel of the Abbay aux Hommes.

His servants stripped him bare and abandoned his body, but a kind-hearted knight arranged a funeral for him at the abbey of St. Stephen in Caen. The funeral was disrupted by the outbreak of a fire. After extinguishing the blaze, the pallbearers tried to cram the king's bloated corpse into a too-small sarcophagus. The body exploded, creating a horrible smell that sent mourners running for the exits. To add insult to injury, the tomb was subsequently destroyed by rampaging Huguenots. Its imposing replacement is embedded directly in front of the very impressive altar.

William The Conqueror's Tomb in Caen

photo by G. Wilson

Inscribed on a large marble slab in Latin are the words:

"Here is buried
Duke of Normandy
King of England
Founder of this House
Died in the Year


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