William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

Born: c. 1028 in Château de Falaise, Falaise, Normandy
Died: Sept 9, 1087 (at age 58-59) in Priory of St Gervase, Rouen, Normandy
Nationality: Norman
Famous For: First Norman King of England

Few dates in the long and ancient history of Britain are more significant than the year 1066. That was the year when a mighty duke of Viking descent – William the Conqueror – sailed a powerful army from France across the English Channel to conquer the last Anglo Saxon King of England.

Early Years

William the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy, then a duchy of northern France. He was born an illegitimate child in about 1028. He was the son of Robert the Magnificent, who also held the title of Duke of Normandy. His mother was Herlava, a woman who may have been a peasant of low birth. They were not married, and thus, William was sometimes referred to as William the Bastard.

Nevertheless, William would eventually inherit the title of Duke from his father, although he had to fight off a number of claims from at least one of his brothers and other ambitious men of the period.

Much about the early life of William is sketchy because detailed record-keeping was not common in that era. It is generally held that William grew up to become a robust, handsome man of considerable charm and bravery. Many stories are told of his enormous strength. He also bore the classic look of his Nordic bloodline – tall, blonde, muscular and projecting the image of a warrior.

Ascension to Dukedom

William’s father, Robert, died in 1035 leaving the control of Normandy in question. Although William had been named heir, he was just seven or eight years old at the time. Years of turmoil, claims and counterclaims over rule of Normandy were fought between a variety of factions among both French and English power structures — the eventual result was William finally solidifying his control and full title of Duke of Normandy by year 1060.

Once he had established and consolidated his control of Normandy, William turned his eye to England, over which he could make a legitimate argument to be rightful king. It is known that King Edward, who died without children, had named William to be his heir. William indeed was a blood relative of Edward because he was a direct descendant of Edward’s uncle.

William Versus Harold

However, William’s claim was contested by Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex. Godwinson eventually ascended to the throne as King Harold in January of 1066. His reign would last just ten months, however. William landed his forces on the shores of England in October of 1066.

The armies of King Harold and William clashed in the Battle of Hastings on October 14. The battle was a complete defeat for Harold, who was also killed in the battle. Thus began the reign of William the Conqueror as King of England.

Consolidating English Leadership

William faced a number of subsequent challenges to his new title from other elements of English feudal society, but he managed to prevail over all and strengthen his rule. During his reign, William also faced enormous challenges from Danish and other Nordic invaders — which is somewhat ironic since William and his family originally came to England and France as Norse invaders themselves.

William’s 1066 conquest of England was the beginning of the establishment of a single English monarchy which has lasted intact up to present times. Beginning with William, the English system of courts, laws, public policy, taxation, record-keeping, church organization and much more all came into focus. It was William and his cohorts who created the fundamental structure of English government which is the root of British society today.

William’s Death

William the Conqueror died in 1086. Some accounts say he contracted an illness while attending to military business near Mantes, France, and another account says he received a heavy blow from the pommel of his horse in a freak accident. He is interred within a tomb in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen, France.