14 July 2008

Famous People: William the Conqueror

By Lisa Yarde

William the Conqueror is one of the world's most famous bastards.

Not in the contemporary sense--though his enemies might have agreed--but because he rose above his birth to become Duke of Normandy and King of England. His impact on history is reflected in English law and language, and in the dominance of feudalism.

Image: William the Conqueror

Born in 1027, William was the only acknowledged son of Robert I of Normandy, alternatively known by the epithets "the Devil" or "the Magnificent" during his life. Allegedly, Robert first saw William's would-be mother Herleva from his castle at Falaise, Normandy, while she was dyeing leather. Robert promptly fell in lust and ordered the daughter of a local tanner to his bed. His mother's heritage haunted William all his life. In 1047, at William's siege of Alençon, a buffer state between Normandy and Maine, its people hung animal skins over the walls to taunt the young duke. When William captured Alençon, he cut off the hands of his tormentors.

This occurred many years after a fraught upbringing. William's father went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1035. Robert died on the return journey, but before he left Normandy, he had proclaimed his illegitimate son his heir. Raised by his paternal uncle, the Archbishop of Rouen and other guardians, William survived several assassination attempts even before he became an adult. He enjoyed the support of King Henry I of France during the early years, but rivalry between the two men led to warfare in 1054 and 1057.

William married Matilda of Flanders, who bore him four sons and at least four daughters. As with most events in William's life, his union with Matilda did not begin easily. His first envoys to the Flemish court received a stinging rejection from Matilda; as a descendant of Alfred the Great of England and the French kings, she refused to marry William because of his mother's low origins and his birth.

But William did not give up. Allegedly, he rode one summer to Flanders, pulled Matilda from her horse and beat her. Whatever her feelings about this episode, Matilda changed her mind about the bastard duke. Theirs seems to have been a long and happy union, altered only by the rebellions of their oldest son Robert against his father. Matilda died in 1083; when her bones were exhumed, she measured little more than four feet tall, one of England's smallest queens but a match for the strength of her husband.

William had connections to the English court through his great aunt, Queen Emma, the mother of England's Edward the Confessor. The English king had also spent several years in Normandy as a young man and emulated Norman dress and architecture. King Edward had married Edith, a daughter of the powerful Godwin clan. When he died childless, the succession was at risk.

His brother in-law Harold Godwinson claimed the crown, but so did William of Normandy, who claimed that not only had Edward the Confessor named him heir to the throne, but Harold had sworn an oath on holy relics to support the claim.

When William learned Harold had been crowned king in January 1066, he supposedly withdrew from an afternoon of hunting and spoke to no one for several days. But this depression did not last. He summoned a war council and planned an invasion. He arrived on England’s southern coast at an optimal time; Harold was north battling Harald Hardrada for the throne, the first of two threats the English would face that year. When Harold won his first battle, he rapidly marched his army south. The Normans and English met near Hastings in October 1066. William defeated his enemy and became King of England two months later.

Image: Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry

Not bad for an illegitimate son who started out with an uncertain future.