A bastard in both magnificent and literal terms: the illegitimate son of Robert I of Normandy and a tanner's daughter (at one siege, his foes hung tanned hides from the battlements to mock him – not very wisely in the long run, since he chopped off both hands and both feet of every member of the garrison once he captured the place). His father died when he was eight, and he would spend the next twenty years involved in the battles between various French vassal states, as well as fighting Norman nobles who thought "Duke" sounded pretty good in front of their own names. Married Matilda of Flanders, at least in part to secure his northeastern border and shore up his English credentials (she counted top Anglo-Saxon king Alfred The Great as an ancestor); she spurned the bastard duke at first, leading to William throwing her off her horse by her hair and pimp-slapping her. She agreed to marry him immediately afterwards, defying a papal ban to do so. Unlike many of his descendants, there is no record of William having mistresses or illegitimate children, and her death four years before his own seemed to have shaken him quite badly. The Build-Up To Hastings
According to William's chroniclers, in 1051, King Edward the Confessor of England visited William. Edward had actually grown up in Normandy, exiled from England after the Throne was seized by the Danish King Canute (Cnut), and had been a bodyguard/regent for William until Canute's death opened a power vacuum and tempted him across the English Channel. Edward had a problem, called Godwin, Earl of Wessex. He had grown quite powerful under Canute, and during the struggle for the throne had Edward's older brother murdered. Despite this crime, Godwin was too powerful to remove, and Edward had to give him free rein, including accepting Godwin's daughter in marriage. Edward's chance came in 1051, where a dispute between Godwin and another noble allowed Edward to banish Godwin. It's during this period that William says Edward visited him, and gave him a verbal assurance that William would receive the throne of England after his death. Shortly after this Godwin came back with new supporters, regained his old power and ensured Edward was now under his thumb. Not that he got to enjoy it for long, because he died of a stroke in 1053. This didn't let Edward off the hook though. Godwin's title went to his son Harold, and the Godwinson family was generally considered the most powerful family in England. However Edward had his own card to play: Godwin had made him marry his daughter so there would eventually be a Godwinson on the throne, so Edward decided not to consummate the marriage. This naturally raised a question of succession: while father-to-son inheritance was not ironclad, it was the usual way things were done. To a casual observer, the answer was obvious: Harold Godwinson was handsome, popular, and rich, had a cadre of loyal family members and was already quite powerful. Then, for reasons unknown to modern historians, Harold went to Normandy. His ship was apparently blown off course, and he was arrested in a vassal land of William. The Duke graciously showed leniency, invited Harold to take part in a campaign against another French vassal state and made him a knight of William's court. This involved Harold swearing an oath, which was Serious Business indeed. The contents of the oath are unclear, although William claimed it was to support William's claim to the throne when Edward died. To make the oath even more binding, William persuaded (tricked?) Harold into making it over a reliquary of a saint. The reason much detail from this period is unclear is that, from Harold's visit to William right up to the end of the Battle of Hastings, our sole primary historical source is the Bayeux Tapestry: a giant 224ft (68m) embroidered strip of cloth found in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy, probably commissioned (like the cathedral itself) in the immediate post-Conquest years by William's half-brother Bishop Odo. Effectively a vast medieval cartoon strip, it tells the story of these momentous events in a sprawling, colourful, Latin-annotated pictorial form – but, essentially, purely from the Norman perspective, not to mention having numerous minor amendments from restoration etc. possibly altering the original appearance/context of some scenes. The Year of Three Kings – a.k.a. 1066 And All That
On January 5th, 1066, Edward died. The nobles of England had no trouble proclaiming Harold as the new King – especially after he did them such a nice favour, which shall be explained later. William was not happy with this. Despite this, his nobles were not overly keen on a foreign invasion. This changed when William took his cause to The Pope, citing the broken oath, combined with stories about how Harold was defiling churches. It worked beautifully, and the Pope blessed his endeavours – and with spiritual rewards now added to the potential of land and riches, many flocked to William's (and the Pope's) banner. He raised an army, built a fleet and prepared to set sail for England. Harold wasn't sitting on his hands either. He too raised an army, equal in strength to William's, and waited. And waited. God didn't seem to want the fight to happen just yet, because the winds wouldn't allow William to set out across the English Channel. Two months passed, the maximum time under law that Harold could call up his conscripted farmers to fight. With the harvest due, Harold sent these men home. He was right to feel uneasy about this, and to explain why we now need to explore why he was so strongly supported as king. He had the support from the powerful nobles of Northumbria, after getting rid of a pest in 1065. The pest was Tostig Godwinson, Harold's own brother, who had basically antagonised Northumbria with his taxes and general Jerkass qualities. Knowing their support would be useful when the time came to claim the throne, and fearing civil war if he backed his brother, Harold supported the nobles, and Tostig was exiled. But now, a few weeks after Harold demobilized his army, Tostig had returned, bringing in tow a large army of Horny Vikings, with the terrifying King of Norway Harald Hardrada coming to claim the throne through the line of Canute. Harold wasted no time, however. In a truly impressive feat of logistics, he force-marched from London to York, gathered his army as he marched and completely annihilated Tostig and Harald's forces at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, effectively ending the age of Viking raids on England. Which, of course, made his forces completely winded when it came to William's own subsequent invasion – which as luck (or divine providence) would have it, followed almost instantly on the heels of Stamford Bridge, as the winds in the Channel finally turned and swept his fleet across to the south coast of England. Harold, probably not believing his ears, promptly cobbled his army back into shape, swung them around and marched them right back down the country again: 241 miles (388 km) in a mere 5 days. Heroically, they managed to engage the Norman army almost straight off the boats, at the Battle of Hastings and, astonishingly, almost won. Famously, at the crucial moment of greatest English initiative, William was driven back and feared lost – until, in a classic Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated moment, he raised the visor of his helmet to show his face and rally his troops.
Still the English fought on throughout the day; in an era when most military engagements were done and dusted in a couple of hours, the two sides battled nearly to a standstill for nine. As sunset approached, a halt would have been called for the night; with Harold able to call on reinforcements by morning, a remarkable second straight defensive victory would have been all but assured the next day. Knowing this, the Normans made one last cavalry charge supported by their archers, and Harold possibly/probably (the Tapestry is ambiguous) took an arrow through the eye, was hacked down and was killed. William was crowned, most land and titles ended up in the hands of William's Norman barons, and a rebellion in northern England led to it getting the Sherman treatment. William organized England into a strong centralized (at least for the time) state; the Domesday Book was written during his reign to determine his tax income. William was still warring as an old man, remaining strong though undeniably very podgy, eventually dying from internal injuries from hitting the high pommel of his saddle while falling off his horse. Fun fact: Every American President is descended from William the Conqueror (As well as 33% of people in the world with British ancestry). William II (Rufus) (1087-1100) Notably not the eldest son of the Conqueror, but Robert Curthose (who had rebelled against his father before, due to his brothers dumping a chamber pot on his head) was made Duke of Normandy instead and agreed to be heir presumptive to his younger brother. Will Jr. was an effective fighter and ruthless ruler (you had to be ruthless to be a strong king back then) but not beloved by his nobles. He was named Rufus for his red-faced and maybe red-haired appearance (probably matching his temperament), and notoriously was killed in a hunting 'accident' in the New Forest. With a crossbow bolt in his lung. Often rumored to be pagan and/or gay. Henry I (Beauclerc) (1100-1135) The youngest son of William the Conqueror. William apparently recognized Henry's Magnificent Bastard tendencies from the beginning, and bequeathed him cash rather than land holdings, acknowledging that Henry would soon end up with everything anyway. Henry moved quickly to secure the treasury after his brother's death and was aided by Robert being far away, returning from a crusade. He granted a charter which would form the basis for future documents such as the Magna Carta, and undertook extensive legal and financial reforms during his reign. Married Edith of Scotland, thus linking his descendants to the pre-conquest West Saxon royal line. Famous for having the largest number of bastards of any English King (at over 20, still nothing on Walder Frey). Only two legitimate children lived to adulthood, his son and heir dying in the White Ship disaster, whereupon he made his barons swear to serve his daughter, Matilda (Maude). Stephen (of Blois) (1135-1154), de facto monarch Count of Blois, nephew of Henry and grandson of William I, he had an elder brother who luckily did not want to be a contender to the throne, which made Stephen (Etienne) the closest male candidate. Proclaimed himself king upon Henry's death, claiming the latter had changed his mind about his intended heir, and was given the support of most of the barons in a peaceful start to the reign. Was not a very effective ruler though and within a few years Matilda had gained enough support to contest her claim. His rule was marred by The Anarchy, a civil war running from 1139-1153 which severely diminished royal power. It ended when Matilda's son was named as heir instead of Stephen's. Matilda (the Empress) (1140), de jure monarch, and the Anarchy Daughter of Henry I and his chosen heir. Known as Empress Matilda from a previous marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, she is sometimes called the Empress Maud or Maude, since at the time Maud and Matilda were considered the same name. She was an unpopular choice for ruler not only because of her sex, but because her current husband Geoffrey of Anjou was from a powerful French house who were the traditional enemies and rivals of the Dukes of Normandy. Was aided in her fight by her half brother (and past claimant), the illegitimate Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the eldest of Henry's bastards and a powerful captain and nobleman. Such was his importance to her fight that after her forces captured Stephen she later had to trade her rival back in return for Robert when he too was captured. Ultimately Matilda's quest to establish herself as the first ruling queen of England ended in failure (and the country would have to wait another 400 years for one), but she had the last laugh in the long run: her son, who would become Henry II, was made heir in 1153, ending the direct rule of the House of Normandy and ushering in The House of Plantagenet.
Depictions in fiction
- The War Lord takes place in the late 11th century and follows a Norman knight taking his place as the feudal lord of a village at the time of William the Conqueror.
- The Pillars of the Earth spans the Anarchy and ends during Henry II's reign
- Brother Cadfael takes place during the Anarchy, and contains a lot of believable representations of the politics and personalities of the time.
- The Wild Hunt Trilogy span two generations of a feudal family during the reign of The House of Normandy.
- The Stones of Green Knowe, the sixth and final book of The Green Knowe Chronicles, is set during the reign of Henry I.
- Rosemary Sutcliff's novels The Shield Ring, Knight's Fee, and The Witch's Brat take place during the reigns of William Rufus and Henry Beauclerc.
- The House of Normandy is playable in Crusader Kings II. William's ancestor Rollo exists as a landless courtier in Norway in 867 AD (as Hrolfr de Normandie, marshal to a Norse chief), and the two 1066 bookmarks bracket William's campaign for England. All three sides of the war are playable and there are achievements for succeeding as either Harald or William (as well as the little-known King Svend II of Denmark, who also had a claim but wasn't involved in the historical war).