The Early Life of William the Conqueror

Sometimes called William the Bastard, William the Conqueror ruled England from 1066 until 1087. Read more at Suite101: The Early Life of William the Conqueror

William was born in Falaise, Normandy, in either 1027 or 1028. William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, the Duke of Normandy. William’s mother, Herlava, also gave birth to two step-brothers, Odo of Bayeux and Robert, the Count of Mortain. In addition to his two step-brothers, William also had a sister, Adelaide of Normandy.

William’s Childhood

William’s illegitimate status caused difficulties during his childhood and a number of attempts were made on his life. In one famous incident, William narrowly escaped death while sleeping in the same bed as another boy, who was stabbed instead of William.

In spite of his illegitimate status, William was recogized as the rightful Duke of Normandy, following the death of his father in 1035.

Plots by jealous rivals to supplant William, or usurp his authority began almost at once. However, William was supported by the King of France, and was eventually knighted, sometime around the age of 15. By the time William turned 19, he had already put down a number of rebellions and stopped several invasions of Normandy.

With the assistance of the King of France, William was able to defeat a group of rebel barons who sought to overthrow him, near Caen, at the Battle of Val-es-Dune in 1047. In 1053, and against the wishes of Pope Leo IX, William married Matilda of Flanders. The primary sources describe William as a loving husband, and a good father to their ten children. However, William.

William’s Claim to the English Crown

In 1066, the death of Edward the Confessor sparked a power struggle for the English throne. William had a tenuous claim to the English crown through his great aunt, Emma of Normandy. Emma was the Queen of Ethelred the Unready and Canute the Great, as well as the mother of Edward the Confessor. In addition to William’s blood claim, he also contended that Edward, who had spent much time in Normandy while in exile, had promised William the English crown when William visited London in 1052. William also maintained that Harold Godwinson had sworn allegiance to William in 1064. However, William was not aware that he had actually sworn allegiance to Harold over holy relics.

In addition to William’s claim, the English throne was also claimed by Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway.’s marriage was considered consanguine by the Church, as William and Matilda were distantly related. As penance, William and Matilda built St. Stephen’s Church and Holy Trinity Church, in Caen, France.

In January, 1066, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England.

The Norman Invasion

Upon learning this news, William submitted his claim to the English throne to Pope Alexanader II, who sent William a consecrated banner. William established a war council at Lillebonne, near Le Havre, and began to raise an army. William also began to assemble an invasion fleet at Dive-sur-Mer.

On September 12, 1066, William’s fleet sailed for England after 8 months of waiting for the wind and tides to be right. Shortly after setting sail, a storm blew up and William’s fleet was forced to take shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. On September 27, the Normans set sail for England once again, landing at Pevensey Bay, on the Sussex coast, on September 28. From there William moved quickly to Hastings, where he assembled a pre-fabricated wooden castle, brought from France. William chose Hastings because it was situated on a long peninsula and flanked on either side by impenetrable marshes

In the mean time, Harold Godwinson had gone north, upon receiving intelligence that Harald Hardrada had landed just ten miles from York. After defeating Harald at Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson turned south and after a four day force march, prepared to attack William.

On October 13, William received intelligence that Harold’s army had left London for William’s position. At dawn on October 14, 1066, William’s army left its encampment and began advancing toward the enemy, which was camped at the top of Senlac Hill, near the site of Battle Abbey, a few miles outside Hastings

The Battle of Hastings lasted all day. The forces of William and Harold were evenly matched for size, however, the composition of William’s forces were more evenly distributed among infantry, cavalry and archers, unlike Harold’s force which was composed mostly of infantry. Harold’s troops formed a shield-wall along the top of the ridge which was initially successful in keeping the Normans at bay. The primary sources claim that William was unhorsed and that he raised his helmet at this point to forestall any rumours of his death. Meanwhile, the English pursued the Normans on foot, and consequently came under attack from Norman cavalry. The English were further weakened by Norman archers. As the sun began to set, Harold Godwinson readied his troops for a final stand. It was at this point that Harold was killed, Popular legends say he was shot in the eye with an arrow. Following this unexpected turn of events, the English turned and fled.

William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066.


Douglas, David C. (1999) William the Conqueror; the Norman impact upon England, Yale English monarchs series, London : Yale University Press

Howarth, David (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, London : Collins

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