The Reign of William the Conqueror

Following the death of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in December, 1066.

Following the Battle of Hastings, southern England submitted quickly to William’s rule. However, resistance to the Normans continued for six years in the north. During the first two years of his reign, William suffered many uprisings and rebellions all over England, including revolts in Dover, Mercia and Exeter.

Resistance to Norman Rule

The worst crisis occurred in Northumbria, in 1068. Edgar the Aethling, who was declared King of England by the Witengamot, but not crowned, staged a revolt. William was able to successfully crush Edgar’s uprising, but Edgar fled to Scotland where he was sheltered by King Malcolm III. Shortly after this, Malcolm married Edgar’s sister, Margaret, which threatened to tip the balance of power in England against William. Sensing instability in William’s rule, Edgar, with the support of the Danes, attacked again, this time laying siege to York. However, Edgar’s forces were trapped and defeated at Lincoln by William, who also put down revolts in Exeter, Dorset and Somerset at the same time.

William then proceeded to lay waste to Northumbria between the Tee and Humber Rivers. William’s troops burned crops, vegetation and houses. They killed livestock, destroyed farm tools and sowed the fields with salt. As a result of this scorched earth policy, the region took over a hundred years to recover from William’s devastation and lost much of its autonomy in the process. Thanks to his brutal methods, William was successful in breaking the spirit of resistance in the English people.

In 1075, while William was away in Normandy, a revolt broke out, led by the Earl of Hereford and the Earl of Northumberland over William’s refusal to sanction the marriage of Emma Fitzosbern to the Earl of East Anglia. William sent his step-brothers, Odo of Bayeux and Robert, the Count of Mortain to put down the uprising. Known as the Revolt of the Earls, this was the last act of resistance against William’s rule in England.

As would become habit for his descendants, William spent much of his time in Normandy and ruled England through his decrees and royal writs. Nominally a vassal state loyal to the King of France, William’s successful invasion of England made Normandy extremely powerful and aroused the jealousy of the French nobility, who attempted to invade Normandy. In response to this aggression, William tried to invade Brittany and was stopped by King Phillip I. In 1076, William’s daughter, Constance was betrothed to Alan, who would eventually become the Duke of Brittany.

Around the same time, William’s oldest son, Robert of Normandy, undertook what eventually became a major rebellion against his father following a prank and resulting brawl with his younger brothers, William and Henry. William was only able to confront Robert’s with the assistance of the King of France. In 1079, William was knocked from his horse by Robert and injured. Robert only lowered his sword after he recognized his father‘s voice. Shortly afterward, an embarrassed William returned to Rouen and abandoned his campaign against Robert. In 1080, William and Robert were reconciled and Robert’s inheritance was restored.

The Legacy of William the Conqueror

During his rule, William instituted a number of reforms in England. He brought the English shires under central control and decreased the power of the Earls, limiting them to one shire each. With the exception of the royal court, all administrative functions remained fixed in specific English towns. Over time, the English administrative apparatus would become one of the most sophisticated in Europe. In 1085, William commissioned the Domesday Book, which was an attempt to improve taxation in England. The purpose of the Domesday Book was to survey England’s productive capacity. Today it is remember as the first census in British history.

William is also said to have eliminated the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in as little as four years. Although William initially allowed English nobles who submitted to his rule to keep their land and titles, by 1070, the Anglo-Saxons had ceased to play a major role in the English aristocracy. By 1086, the Anglo-Saxon nobility held just 8% of the land it had held prior to the Norman Invasion.

According to the Medieval historian, William of Malmesbury, William also seized and depopulated large parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire in order to create the New Forest, which was set aside as a royal hunting preserve.

In 1087, William laid siege to the city of Mantes, 50 kilometres west of Paris. During the course of the siege, William fell from his horse, cutting himself on his saddle’s pommel and suffered a fatal abdominal injury. On his death bed, William divided his lands among his sons. Robert was given the Duchy of Normandy and would rule as Robert II. William’s third son, William Rufus inherited the English crown, ruling England as William II. William’s youngest son, Henry received 5,000 pounds in silver which was earmarked for the purchase of land.

William the Conqueror died at the age of 59, on September 9, 1087. William was buried in St. Stephen’s Church in Caen.

Sources

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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