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William I of England
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The Dangerous Way to the Throne of England

The following is about William I of England and some of his children.

Wilhelm with his halfbrothers Odo and Robert in a sequence of the Bayeux tapestry
William between his half-brothers Odo and Robert. Detail from the Bayeux tapestry.

William is the first Norman king of England. He also known as William the Conqueror. He is mentioned in these Norwegian-Icelandic Norse sources:

  1. The oldest is the Latin Historia Norvegiae (ca. 1180), written in Norway.
  2. Fagrskinna's chapter 74 tells of William and his ancestor Rolf Ganger (Rollo). This work was written around 1220, estimatedly, and was an immediate source for the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson. It contains a vernacular history of Norway from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, and includes skaldic verses that in part have been preserved nowhere else. It has a heavy emphasis on battles. The book may have been written in Norway, either by an Icelander or a Norwegian. (Cf. Finlay 2004)
  3. In the early 1200s, the Icelander Snorri Sturluson writes about an ancestor of William in Heimskringla, Book 3, section 24; Book 7, section 19. Their tales start somewhere during the reign of King Harald Fairhair (Chaps. 27, 30-32) and say it was a Rolv Ganger who became known as Rollo, and ancestor of William and though him of the British royal house. (cf. Sturluson 2015 and 2016)
  4. From the Icelandic ◦Landnama Book (Ellwood 1898): "Rögnvald, Earl of Mæri, son of Eystein Glumra, the son of Ivar, an Earl of the Upplendings, the son of Halfdan the Old, had for wife Ragnhild, the daughter of Hrolf the Beaked; their son was Ivar, who fell in the Hebrides, fighting with King Harald Fairhair. Another son was Gaungu-Hrolf who conquered Normandy; from him are descended the Earls of Rouen and the Kings of England. (Part 4, ch. 7)"

William was born in Normandy around 1028 and died in 1087. In the meantime he was keen on getting money. 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.

Childhood Insecurity and What Later Came to Be

A psychological memento: Much insecurity in formative years may form a later hankering for gold and other means for security.

William's 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 - often 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. The young man 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. According to legend, she first refused his proposal. He is supposed to have pursued her when she was on her way to church, and thrown her on the ground by her braids in front of her flabbergasted attendants in reaction to her refusal. In another story William rode to the house of Matilda's father in Lille, threw her to the ground in her room by her braids, and violently battered her before leaving. Her father took offense, but Matilda settled the matter before they could draw sword. She did so by refusing to marry anyone but William.

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.

They were distant cousins, and for that reason the couple and everyone else in Normandy were excommunicated. But the Pope relented when the couple got others to build an abbey for each as a penance. (WP, "Matilda of Flanders")

The English King 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 that year.

After he and his army had conquered England in 1066 CE, 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 confiscated 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. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 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.

He ruthlessly put down his opponents. His wife, Matilda, might have been at it too: An Englishman known as Brictric had declined the romantic advances of Matilda in his youth, and his great fiefdom was later seized by her when she was acting as Regent for William I in England. Then she confiscated Brictric's lands and threw him in prison. There he died. Brictric's fiefdom became the feudal barony of Gloucester, one of the largest in the kingdom. (WP, "Brictric")

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. But before it, King William had divided his states between his sons. Normandy was handed over to his eldest son Robert, even though Robert had sided with his father's enemies in Normandy, and even wounded and defeated his father in a battle there in 1079. William Rufus became king of England after William, and the third remaining son, Henry, was left 5,000 pounds in silver.

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. Hm. 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.

After King William 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]


William Conqueror and sons,  William I of England, Guillaume le Conquérant, Guillaume le Bâtard, Norman King of England and sons, Duke of Normandy, Battle at Hastings, Invasion of England Roots of British royalty clergy peerage, 1066 in historical perspective, Viking descendants, Bayeux tapestry, Literature  

Compain, Frédéric, et Jacques Dubuisson. 2014. Guillame le Conquérant.. Documentaire français. Arte (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne).

Douglas, David C. 1999. William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England. New Haven, NY: Yale University Press. (1964) ⍽▢⍽ Professor Douglas analyses the Norman impact on England in the eleventh century and tells the fantastic story of a Norman duke who survived unruly and warlike vassals (and kin), the king of France, defended his Duchy of Normandy and later put down rebellions in England. William shaped medieval England. Douglas presents his warlord character and personality as harsh, unsympathetic and "unlovable", arrogant, brutal and cruel, possibly even more than the average warrior after having had to fight so hard merely to survive when young. Douglas neither condones nor condemns the acts of William; he just explains.

Finlay, Alison. 2004. Fagrskinna: A Catalogue of the Kings of Norway. A Translation with Introduction and Notes. Leiden: Brill.

Gameson, Richard. 1997. The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press.

Giles, John Allen. 1914. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London, G. Bell and Sons.

Hicks, Leonie, V. 2016. A Short History of the Normans. London: I. B. Taurus.

Ordericus Vitalis: [The Ecclesiastical History] The Ecclesiastical History. (c. 1142). Vols 1-6. Tr. Marjorie Chibnall. Oxford: Paperback ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. ⍽▢⍽ A detailed history of the Norman people and their conquests, with word-portraits of kings and queens, lords and bishops, simple knights, and humble villagers in a feudal society. Orderic made use of William of Poiters work on William Bastard with discretion. "A superbly edited Latin text and a unique English translation of the work of a major historian." - American Historical Review.

Ray, Roger D. 1972. Orderic Vitalis and William of Poitiers: A Monastic Reinterpretation of William the Conqueror. In Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire, tome 50, fasc. 4. Histoire (depuis l'Antiquité) — Geschiedenis (sedert de Oudheid) pp. 1116-1127.

Reeve, Michael J., ed. 2007. Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain. An Edition and Translation of De gestis Britonum [Historia Regum Britanniae] Tr. Neil Wright. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press.

Sellar, A. M. tr. Bedes's Ecclesiastic History of England, London: George Bell and Sons, 1907. (Gutenberg ed. 2011)

Sturluson, Snorri. 2016. Heimskringla. Vol 1. Trs. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes. Corrected ed. University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research.

Sturluson, Snorri. 2016. Heimskringla. Vol 2. Trs. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes. University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research.

Sturluson, Snorri. 2015. Heimskringla. Vol 3. Trs. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes. University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research.

Vincent, Nicholas. 2011. A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485. London. Robinson.

William of Jumieges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans.) (c. 1070) ⍽▢⍽ The Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumièges has become the principal work of Norman historical writings, one of many written to glorify the Norman conquest of England.

William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans. (c. 1071) ⍽▢⍽ William of Poitiers (c. 1020 – 1090) was a French priest of Norman origin and one of the chaplains of Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror), for whom he chronicled the Norman Conquest of England in his unfinished biography of William, Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum ("The Deeds of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England") alias Gesta Gvillelmi II ducis Normannorum. He had trained as a soldier before becoming a clergyman. William of Poitiers wrote the Gesta Guillelmi some time after 1066. The Deeds contains detailed description of William's campaigns in Normandy, the careful preparations he made for the invasion of England, the battle of Hastings and the establishment of Norman power over England afterwards. The work also justifies William's succession to the English throne. The bulk of the writing probably took place 1071 – 1077. The Gesta Guillelmi is the earliest extended biography of any Duke of Normandy, and a good source for the Battle of Hastings in 1066. (WP, "William of Poitiers") - The first complete English translation of The Deeds, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers is by Ralph Henry Carless Davis and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and comes with a historical introduction and detailed notes.

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