William the Conqueror, Part 1
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These chapters revolve around William the Conqueror as he is told of in Norse literature mainly. The medieval saga of Harald Hardrada in the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, also tells of William the Conqueror of Normandy, his family, and some of his ancestors, among them Rolv the Walker who took over Normandy in the 900s.
William was born in Normandy around 1028 and died in 1087. He learnt to unify and administer somehow, and he became keen on getting money. For example, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle writes,
His anxiety for money is the ... thing ... [H]e would say and do some things and indeed almost anything ... where the hope of money allured him.
After he had conquered England in 1066 AD, William consolidated his conquests by building wooden towers on earthen 'mottes' (mounds) with a bailey (defensive area) surrounded by earth ramparts. Many were later rebuilt in stone. Over 80 castles had been built in England by the end of his reign.
William thought it best to confiscate land from Anglo-Saxon nobles and their heirs and let them be obliged to him and the Norman rulers through feudal means and measures. William also promised to uphold existing laws and customs. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1087 declares
he was a very stern and violent man, so no one dared do anything contrary to his will ... Among other things the good security he made in this country is not to be forgotten.
Before William died, he divided his "Anglo-Norman" state between his sons. Normandy was handed over to his eldest son Robert, William Rufus became king of England after him, and the third remaining son, Henry, was left 5,000 pounds in silver. There is a traditional story about this further down the page.
WILLIAM was born in 1027 or 1028. His father was known as such as "Robert the Devil", not just "Robert the Magnificent". William was born of a liaison between his father and a tanner's daughter named Herleve or Herleva, also called Arlette. According to legend, Robert was riding his horse one day when he saw the lovely Arlette washing her clothes in a river. And according to another story, Arlette was dancing beside a road when Robert first spied her. Instantly smitten, the duke sent one of his servants to summon Arlette to his castle. Their son William was born within a year.
After her relationship with Robert ended, Arlette married a viscount with whom she had four children, including a son called Otto (Odo) of Bayeux who would become one of William's most trusted advisors.
When William was about eight, his father left for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He died on his journey, and his illegitimate son William became the new Duke of Normandy. Norman barons quickly plotted to do away with the young duke. First one of William's guardians, Gilbert of Brionne, was murdered; then William's uncle Osbern, Arlette's brother, was killed while protecting William from kidnappers who had invaded the boy's bedroom. William's tutor was also murdered. Not surprisingly, William's supporters decided to send him away from home for his own protection. William's uncle Walter - brother of Arlette and Osbern - frequently woke William in the dead of night and smuggled him to a new hiding place under cover of darkness.
When he was about fifteen, William was knighted, and when he was nineteen or twenty he went to war against his cousin Guy of Burgundy to defend his inheritance. He was always fighting someone - The boy became a ruthless, powerful, and greatly feared conqueror.
When William was in his early twenties he asked Count Baldwin V of Flanders for his daughter Matilda's hand in marriage. But Matilda was already in love with an Englishman named Brihtric. She supposedly proclaimed that she would rather become a nun than the wife of a bastard. That made William so angry that he attacked her in the street as she left church one day. He slapped her, tore her clothes, threw her to the ground, and rode off. They did eventually marry.
William was tall and reportedly grew very fat later in life, while Matilda was short - almost a dwarf - and slender. They had at least four sons and five daughters. The pope objected to William and Matilda's marriage because they were distant cousins. For several years they and everyone else in Normandy were excommunicated.
Edward's brother-in-law Harold Godwinson visited Normandy in 1063 or 1064. According to some accounts Edward had sent Harold to see William; by other accounts, Harold only ended up in Normandy because his ship had been blown off course. Apparently he was not permitted to leave the country until he had sworn on holy relics that he would uphold William's claim to the English throne. He also promised to marry William's daughter Agatha, who was then just a child. But Harold broke both of these promises and took over England.
An outraged William sent messages to Harold, reminding him that he had sworn to support William's claim to the throne and marry William's daughter Agatha. But Harold was already king, and he soon married another woman.
Then, in September of 1066 William invaded England, and on October 14 he defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and William became England's king. He was crowned on Christmas Day.
He ruthlessly put down all opponents. Among those who suffered his wrath was the man who had been his wife Matilda's first love, the unfortunate Brihtric. He was thrown into a dungeon, where he died.
The king fell out with some family members, including his half-brother Otto, who had fought by his side at Hastings and whom William had made a bishop. Otto committed some crime, and William sent him to prison for five years.
Of William's daughter Agatha, who had once expected to marry King Harold, it is said that she always loved Harold, and never wanted another husband. In her teens she was betrothed to the king of Castile, but she died on her way to the wedding.
In his early sixties, while fighting the French at the Battle of Mantes, William was thrown against the pommel of his saddle so violently that his intestines burst. Five weeks later, on September 9, 1087, he died. His servants stripped him bare and abandoned his body, but a knight arranged a funeral for him at the abbey of St. Stephen in Caen.
The funeral was disrupted by the outbreak of a fire. After extinguishing it, the pallbearers tried to cram the king's bloated corpse into a too-small sarcophagus. The body exploded, creating a horrible smell that sent mourners running for the exits. [▫More]
Three Sons of William. A Story
* Less airily: Henry succeeded his elder brother William II as King of England in 1100. William was killed by an arrow in a hunting accident on 2 August in the New Forest, where Henry was also hunting.
Henry defeated his eldest brother, Robert Curthose, to become Duke of Normandy in 1106. The decisive battle between the two brothers and their armies took place in the small village of Tinchebray, Basse-Normandie. Afterwards Henry kept his brother in prison in different places, and became famous for having more than twenty acknowledged illegitimate children.
The short version is that in 1066 William conquered England right after the English troops had conquered a large Norwegian army headed by Harald Hardrada. Extracts from his saga follow, and quotations and a few comments.
Edward, Ethelred's son, was king of England after his brother Hardacanute. He was called Edward the Good; and so he was. King Edward's mother was Queen Emma, daughter of Richard [I], earl of Rouen.
Thus, descendants of Rollo ruled over England even before William the Conqueror sailed ashore and conquered it in 1066.
Emma's brother was Earl Robert [of Normandy], whose son was William the Bastard [later: Conqueror], who at that time was earl at Rouen in Normandy. King Edward's queen was Gyda, a daughter of Earl Godwin, the son of Ulfnad. Gyda's brothers ... the fifth was Harald, who was the youngest, and he was brought up at King Edward's court, and was his foster-son. The king loved him very much, and kept him as his own son. (77)
Edward was king over England for twenty-three years and died on a bed of sickness in London on the 5th of January, and was buried in Paul's church. Englishmen call him a saint. [They used to drink the dirty water of his bath-tub.] (79)
Talking recklessly in Normandy
ONE SUMMER Harald, the son of Godwin, made an expedition to Bretland with his ships, but when they got to sea they met a contrary wind, and were driven off into the ocean. They landed west in Normandy, after suffering from a dangerous storm. They brought up at Rouen, where they met Earl William, who received Harald and his company gladly.
Harald remained there late in harvest, and was hospitably entertained; for the stormy weather continued, and there was no getting to sea, and this continued until winter set in; so the earl and Harald agreed that he should remain there all winter. Harald sat on the high-seat on one side of the earl; and on the other side sat the earl's wife, one of the most beautiful [little] women that could be seen. They often talked together for amusement at the drinking-table; and the earl went generally to bed, but Harald and the earl's wife sat long in the evenings talking together, and so it went on for a great part of the winter. In one of their conversations she said to Harald, "The earl has asked me what it is we have to talk about so much, for he's angry at it."
Harald replies, "We shall then at once let him know all our conversation."
The following day, Harald asked the earl to a conference, and they went together into the conference-chamber; where also the queen was, and some of the councillors. Then Harald began thus:
"I have to inform you, earl, that there lies more in my visit here than I have let you know. I would ask your daughter in marriage, and have often spoke over this matter with her mother, and she has promised to support my suit with you."
As soon as Harald had made known this proposal of his, it was well received by all who were present. They explained the case to the earl; and at last it came so far that the daughter of the earl was contracted to Harald. But, as she was very young, it was resolved that the wedding should be deferred for some years. (78)
WHEN SPRING came Harald rigged his ships and set off; and he and the earl parted with great friendship. Harald sailed over to England to King Edward, but did not return to Valland to fulfil the marriage agreement. 79)
HARALD GODWINSON was made king of England after a quick manouevre where he sat at the side of a deathbed:
"I take you all to witness that the king has now given me the kingdom, and all the realm of England." Then the former king was taken dead out of the bed. . . .
All the chiefs and all the people submitted to that foster-son Harald. When his big brother Toste heard of that coup d'etat he resented it. "I want," said he, "that the principal men of the country choose the one they think is best fitted." Harald said he would not give up his kingly dignity as anointed and consecrated a king. He was bolstered up with having the king's whole treasure. That had to be reckoned with, it was on his side. (80)
WHEN King Harald perceived that his brother Toste wanted to have him deprived of the kingdom he did not trust him; for Toste was a clever man and a great warrior, and also in friendship with the principal men of the country. He therefore took the command of the army from Toste, and Earl Toste, again, went with his people over the sea to Flanders, and stayed there awhile, then went to Friesland, and from there to Denmark to his relation King Svein. The earl now asked King Svein for support and help of men; and King Svein invited him to stay.
Svein: "I am a much smaller man than Canute. I can with difficulty defend my own Danish dominions against the Northmen. King Canute, on the other hand, got the Danish kingdom in heritage, took England by slash and blow, and Norway without. Now it suits me much better not to imitate my relation, King Canute's, lucky hits."
Then Earl Toste said, "The result of my errand here is less fortunate than I expected. It may be that Iwill seek friendly help, that I may find a chief who is less afraid . . ."
The king and the earl parted, not just the best friends. (81)
EARL TOSTE went to Norway. There he presented himself to King Harald Hardrada, who was at that time in Viken. That is the region where Oslo is.
The king replied that the Northmen had no great desire for a campaign in England, and the earl replied, "Is it true that your relative, King Magnus, sent men to King Edward with the message that King Magnus had right to England and also Denmark, due to a regular agreement?"
The king replied, "How came it that he did not get it, if he had a right to it?"
"Why," replied the earl, "have not you got Denmark, as your predecessor, king Magnus, had it?"
The king said, "Well, many a place in Denmark have we Northmen laid in ashes."
Then the earl said, "Iwill tell you: Magnus subdued Denmark, for all the chiefs of the country helped him; and you have not done it, because all the people of the country were against you.
King Magnus did not strive for England, for all the nation would have Edward for king. Will you take England now? All men allow that there was never such a warrior in the northern lands as you are. How come you have been fighting for Denmark and will not take England open to you?"
King Harald weighed carefully the earl's words, they kindled his desire to acquire dominions. At last he determined to go for England in summer and conquer the country. But England was full of men-at-arms, others said and tried to warn him.
With this Earl Toste had got the helper he had striven hard for. He sailed in spring west to Flanders to meet the people who had left England with him, and others besides who had gathered to him both out of England and Flanders. (82)
KING HARALD'S fleet assembled at the Solunds. When King Harald was ready to leave Nidaros (Trondheim) he went to King Olav's shrine, unlocked it, clipped the miraculously still growing hair and nails of the dead brother's body for the last time, and threw the keys into the Nid River there, some say. Since then the shrine of Saint Olav, the king, has never been opened. The church is still standing.
A great fleet was collected; so that King Harald had nearly 200 ships beside provision-ships and small craft. While they lay at the Solunds a man on the king's ship had a nasty dream. He thought he was standing in the king's ship and saw a great witch-wife standing on the island, with a fork in one hand and a trough in the other. The witch-wife sang a song. (83)
KING HARALD also dreamt one night that he was in Nidaros, and met his brother, King Olav, who sang to him these verses:
In many a fight
Many other dreams and forebodings were then told of, most of them gloomy. (85)
CLEAR FOR SEA King Harald sailed out into the ocean; and landed in Shetland, but a part of his fleet in the Orkney Islands. King Harald stopped but a short time in Shetland before sailing to Orkney, from whence he took with him a great armed force, and the earls Paul and Erlend. Then, leaving Scotland and England westward of him, he landed at a place called Klifland. There he went on shore and plundered. In town after town the savage Northmen killed many people and took booty.
There was nothing left for the Englishmen now, if they would preserve their lives, but to submit to King Harald. He subdued the country wherever he came. He had many a large battle, and gained the victory. (86)
IN ONE PLACE there was also a morass, deep, broad, and full of water (87). There was a great loss among the Englishmen right there, and they soon broke into flight, and the most leaping into the ditch, which was so filled with dead that the Norsemen could go dry-foot over the fen. The people who escaped, fled up to the castle of York; and there the greatest loss of men had been. (88)
EARL TOSTE had come from Flanders to King Harald as soon as he arrived in England, and the earl was present at all these battles. A lot of Englishmen submitted to Harald. Then the king advanced to take the castle of York, and laid his army at Stamford Bridge. The people were dismayed. A Thing was appointed within the castle early on Monday morning, and the city dwellers gave up without fight. King Harald was to name officers to rule over the town, to give out laws, and bestow fiefs.
Yet the same evening, after sunset, King Harald Godwinson came from the south to the castle with a numerous army. The Northmen did not thank for it when they found out. They camped outside the city and knew nothing of what was about to happen. (89)
ON MONDAY, when King Harald Hardrada had taken breakfast, he ordered the trumpets to sound for going on shore and take over the city as arranged. The army accordingly got ready. The weather was uncommonly fine, and it was hot sunshine. The men therefore laid aside their armour, contrary to Odin's tactful counsel against it in the Norse poem Havamal. There are shreds of great barbarian counsel in it. And once piece of advice is here:
A wayfarer should not walk unarmed,
Merry Norsemen went on the land only with their shields, helmets and spears ... not much prepared and organised, not fully equipped. So the historian Snorre says. As they came near the castle a great army showed up and marched against them with shining shields and bright armour. The nearer this force came the greater it appeared. The English Harald Godwinson had arrived with a vast army (90). King Harald Hardrada arranged his army as best he could, but it was too late (92). The horse stumbled under him, he fell off and got up in haste.
The English king Harald said to the Northmen who were with him, "Do you know the stout man who fell from his horse, with the blue kirtle and the beautiful helmet?"
"That is the king himself." said they.
The English king said, "A man of stately appearance he is, but I think his luck has left him." (93)
TWENTY HORSEMEN rode forward and said to Earl Toste in the Northmen's army, and one uncommonly well dressed horseman said: "Your brother salutes you with the message that you shall have the whole of Northumberland; not submit to him, hewill give you the third part of his kingdom to rule over along with himself."
The earl: "It is much too late for that offer here and now. I should have got that offer before waging war. Go now, get ready for battle; never shall the Northmen say I deserted the king of Norway."
King Harald Hardrada said to the earl, "Who was the man who spoke so well?"
The earl, "Harald Godwinson, my brother."
Harald also made this significant line:
Another Northman sang:
"And should our king in battle fall,
NOW THE battle began. The earls' bard:
"Where battle-storm was ringing,
KING HARALD Hardrada was hit by an arrow in the windpipe, and that was his death-wound. He fell. Then Thiodolf sang:
"The army stands in hushed dismay;
THE NORTHMEN lost the hard battle. Styrkar, King Harald Hardrada's marshal, a gallant man, escaped on a horse. Later he began to feel cold. A wagoner met him in a lined skin-coat. Gallant Styrkar: "If I were a Northman, what would you do?"
"I'd kill you," replied the peasant."
Then Styrkar said, "Iwill try if I cannot kill you." And with that he swung his sword. He then took the skin-coat, sprang on his horse, and rode down to the strand. (98)
THE GIANT-LIKE Rolv Ganger (Rollo the Walker) from the North is known as Rollon or Rollo today. This ancestor of William took over Normandy and consolidated the area, much aided by other Vikings who settled with him. They came and peopled Normandy in no small way. Later the viking descendants spread to Sicily, the south of Italy, even to Jerusalem, a big part of Syria (Antioch) and so on. They were excellent at governing and administering, is the verdict of most historians.
In 1066 one of the hulk's descendants, the Earl of Rouen, William the Bastard, heard that his relation King Edward had died, and also that Harald Godwinson was chosen, crowned, and consecrated king of England. It appeared to the descendant of Rollon that he had a better right to the kingdom of England than Harald, by reason of the relationship between him and King Edward. He also thought that he had grounds for avenging the affront that Harald had put on him with respect to his daughter. His family had been grossly offended. From all these grounds William gathered together a great army in Normandy, and had many men, and enough transport-shipping.
His brother, Archbishop Otto, was with him.
When the earl came to England he began to plunder, and take possession of the land as he came along. Earl William was stouter and stronger than other men; a great horseman and warrior, but somewhat stern; and a very sensible man, but not considered a man to be relied on. (99)
William had tried to be tactful to his loss, and had been greatly offended. [NOTE: Numbers in round brackets show where to find the larger sections in the Medieval Hardald Hardrada's saga.
The battle at Hastings pops up
KING HARALD Godwinson gave King Harald Hardrada's son Olav leave to go away, but he himself turned round with his army to go south, for he had heard that William the Bastard was overwhelming the south of England with a vast army, and was subduing the country for himself.
The British historian Dr. Woodward estimates that William took all of England of estimated 1.5 million people, with no more than six or seven thousand men - [Hee 1-35].
King Harald and Earl William met each other south in England at Hastings. There was a great battle. King Harald and his brother Earl Gyrd and a great part of his men fell. This was the nineteenth day after the fall of King Harald Hardrada. Harald Godwinson's other brother, Earl Valthiof, escaped by flight. (100)
WILLIAM was proclaimed king of England. He sent a message to Earl Valthiof that they should be reconciled, and gave him assurance of safety to come to the place of meeting. The earl set out with a few men; but when he came to a heath north of Kastala-bryggia, two officers of King William met him, with many followers. They took him prisoner, put him in fetters, and afterwards he was beheaded. The English call him a saint.
After this William was a severe king of England for twenty-one years, and his descendants have been so "ever since", says the Icelander Snorre in the first half of the 1200s. (101).
Here is no small reason why King William remained in power: It is gist taken from ▫Laws of William the Conqueror:
EVERY freeman shall affirm by oath and compact that he will be loyal to king William both within and without England, ... and defend him against his enemies. (No. 2) (1)
Basic source: Edward Freeman: The History of the Norman Conquest of England. [Tnc]DURING A MONTH'S standstill duke William's whole army received regular pay and regular provisions - all plunder was forbidden and with a degree of success that seemed incredible. [Tnc 143]
His opponent, Harold Godwinson, who fed a great army, refrained from wasting the land to starve William's men. "Never," said Harold at a certain time, "will I burn an English village or an English house; never will I harm the lands or the goods of any Englishman ... under me to govern." [Tnc 112, 173]
THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY is about 50 cm high and over 70 metres long, but was probably longer when it was first made. In a series of 72 scenes and over 1500 figures, it shows incidents leading to the Battle of Hastings in south-eastern England.
The tapestry is a needlework piece made with wool thread embroidered on white linen. It was probably commissioned by Otto (also called Odo), Bishop of Bayeux and half brother of William.
The Bayeux Tapestry is art as historical record. The designers purpose was to show events and present explanations. Most of the design is without perspective. The scenes of battle are graphic and violent. The main story is shown in a middle panel with smaller scenes and many decorative animals and birds on bands along the top and the bottom.
In the tapestry, Normans fight from horseback while the English fight on foot and have mustaches - while Normans are clean shaven.
THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY has rather much in common with Norwegian tapestry: "The stately horseman from Nes in Hedmark (Norway) could easily replace a Norman at Hastings, both horse, weapons and attire are of the same type," Per Simonnæs tells. He is the author of books on Norwegian art. [Noko 47-8, 90-2.]
THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY is also known as Queen Mathilde's tapestry. It seems to have been finished when the cathedral in Bayeux was ready in 1077. It portrays king William's preparations and invasion in 1066. It contains 72 dramatic scenes. The scenes have been divergently interpreted and still are. All in all 626 persons are depicted on that linen tapestry, 202 horses, 505 animals of many kinds, 37 fortresses and other buildings, and finally 41 ships or landing crafts. (4)
SPEAKING of Norman art, in Southern Italy and other states too it is held to be good. [Cf. Noko 74 etc.]. Further, the Italian Professor Marongiu presents interesting photos of Norman ruins and antique remains from many highly cultured Normans in Southern Italy. [Bnsi 35-7 etc.] 6)
Hnam: Barthelemy, Ch.: Histoire de la Normandie ancienne et moderne. Tours:Mame, 1862.
Bnsi: Marongiu, Antonio: Byzantine, Norman, Swabian and later Institutions in Southern Italy. Collected Studies. London: Variolum Reprints, 1972.
Gh: Hjortsø, Leo. Græske guder og helte. 2. utg. København: Politiken, 1984.
Hee: Woodward, E.: A History of England. London: University Paperback / Methuen, 1965.
Norsd: Steenstrup, Johannes: Normannerne, bd 1. Copenhagen: Klein, 1876.
Noko: Simonnæs, Per: Normannerne kommer. Oslo: Grøndahl Dreyer, 1994.
Nok: Hødnebø, Finn & Magerøy, Hallvard eds: Norges kongesagaer. Vols 1-4. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1979.
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