Here is information about William the Conqueror from many sources, including contemporary ones and encyclopedias - selected and assembled to present an all-round picture of some of his accomplishments too.
What did William look like? Are engravings of coins a help? To some degree, possibly. It may be the nearest to get in this case. Yet it depends on what his coin-makers were after, what techniques were at their disposal, and much else. Medieval coins were struck by hand, normally using a hammer and a pair of dies. These pressed the design into the surfaces of the blank coin. Now two coin depictions on this page look savage; the third one a bit less so. All three are from the time of his reign, and now in the British Museum. "New kings, new coins" is a handy thought unless forgeries are to be reckoned with.
No contemporary paintings of William have surfaced. What is sometimes used to show him, is "William 1" by George Vertue (1648-1756). A detail of it is shown here. The picture is in the Royal British Collection. But there is no evidence of any likeness. It is just a "vision" of the 1600s, made about 600 years after the death of William.
There are verbal descriptions of William from some old sources:
According to a brief description of William's person by an anonymous author, who borrowed extensively from Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, he was just above average height and had a robust, thick-set body. Though he was always sparing of food and drink, he became fat in later life. He had a rough bass voice and was a good and ready speaker. Writers of the next generation agree that he was exceptionally strong and vigorous. William was an out-of-doors man, a hunter and soldier, fierce and despotic, generally feared; uneducated, he had few graces but was intelligent and shrewd and soon obtained the respect of his rivals. [EB]
It is worth noting that the Icelander Snorre Sturlason writes in ca. 1220 about William the Conqueror:
William gathered together a great army in Normandy, and had many men, and sufficient transport-shipping. The day that he rode out of the castle to his ships, and had mounted his horse, his wife came to him, and wanted to speak with him; but when he saw her he struck at her with his heel, and set his spurs so deep into her breast that she fell down dead; and the earl rode on to his ships . . . Earl William was . . . not considered a man to be relied on. [Harald Hardrada's Saga (Section 99)].
Other sources say Mathilda did not die in 1066, but that he mistreated her differently:
When William was in his early twenties he asked Count Baldwin V of Flanders for his daughter Matilda's hand in marriage. Matilda was short - almost a dwarf - and slender. 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, which 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.
A happy marriage? The marriage was condemned as incestuous by the pope in 1049, and the couple was excommunicated along with their people. But in 1059 William was reconciled to the papacy, and as penance the disobedient pair built two monasteries at Caen. Over the next sixteen years the couple had at least these ten children: Robert Curthose, Richard (killed in a hunting accident in 1075), Cecily, William Rufus, Agatha, Henry Beauclerk, Constance, Matilda, and Adela. [EB]
William paid a visit to the king of England, Edward the Confessor, in 1051. Edward had been raised in Normandy, and he and William were cousins. When Edward died childless in January in 1066, Harold Godwinson was accepted as king by the English magnates, and William decided on war, because he maintained he had a right to the land. William claimed that Edward had promised to make him his heir. William went to England in 1066 and won the battle of Hastings.
Duke William . . . excelled in . . . checking his own men in flight . . . more often commanding men to follow than urging them on from the rear. The enemy (at the Battle of Hastings) lost heart at the mere sight of this marvellous and terrible knight. Three horses were killed under him . . . Shields, helmets, hauberks were cut by his furious and flashing blade . . . [William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)]
After winning the battle, William ravaged the countryside and by the end of the year the people of London, surrounded by devastated lands, submitted to William. On 25th December, 1066, William was crowned king of England by Aldred, Archbishop of York, at Westminster Abbey.
After his coronation in 1066, William claimed that all the land in England now belonged to him. William retained about a fifth of this land for his own use. The rest was distributed to those men who had helped him defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings. In 1067 William and his army went on a tour of England where he organised the confiscating of lands, built castles and established his sort of law and order.
The English, however, did not so readily accept him as their king. A series of rebellions broke out, and William suppressed them harshly, ravaging great sections of the country. Titles to the lands of the now decimated native nobility were called in and redistributed on a strictly feudal basis (see feudalism), to the king's Norman followers. [Columbia encyclopedia]
William was not generous to the church with his own property. The reformer Lanfranc was one of his advisers; but perhaps even more to his taste were the worldly and soldierly bishops Odo of Bayeux (his half-brother), and Geoffrey of Coutances.
King William and the chief men loved gold and silver and did not care how sinfully it was obtained provided it came to them. He (William) did not care at all how wrongfully his men got possession of land nor how many illegal acts they did. [Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version E, entry for 1087]
After December, 1067 and over the next few months, rebellions were put down. In 1068 another insurrection took place at Exeter. Once again William defeated the rebels. Afterwards he built castles in Exeter and other key towns. This included Durham which was the scene of a rebellion in 1069.
William also had to deal with raids on the north led by King Sweyn of Denmark. William's army forced the Danes to retreat and then crushed another uprising in Staffordshire. He then burnt crops, house and property of people living between York and Durham. The chroniclers claim that the area was turned into a desert and people died of starvation. The revolt finally came to an end when William's troops captured Chester in 1070.
In a few years William had ruined the highest English aristocracy. And William himself got a distaste for his newly conquered kingdom after putting down the revolts. Old sources tell about these happenings:
In his anger William ordered that all crops and herds . . . and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes, so that the whole region north of Humber might be stripped of all means of survival. [Ordericus Vitalis: Ecclesiastical History describing what happened after an English rebellion in the winter of 1069. (c. 1142)]
The whole country from York to Durham was laid waste, and we learn, for example, from the Domesday Book, that in the district of Amunderness, where there had been sixty-two villages in the Confessor's time, there were in 1087 but sixteen, and these with a vastly reduced population. Neither was this the only instance of such ruthless severity. A terrible penalty was exacted in other centres of rebellion, and we read not only of a wholesale use of fire and sword, but of mutilation and blinding in the case of individual offenders. [Catholic encyclopeda Link]
In 1071 another revolt broke out. Led by Hereward the rebels captured the Isle of Ely. William personally led the Norman army against Hereward. He punished the rebels with mutilation and lifelong imprisonment and built a new castle at Ely.
He [William] made large forests for the deer, and passed laws, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but the king was so strong that he took no notice of them. [Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version E, entry for 1083.]
In 1077 William's eldest son, Robert Curthose, suggested that he should become the ruler of Normandy and Maine. When the king refused, Robert rebelled and attempted to seize Rouen. The rebellion failed and Robert was forced to flee and established himself at Gerberoi. William besieged him there in 1080 but his wife, Matilda of Flanders, managed to persuade the two men to end their feud.
William, Duke of Normandy, never allowed himself to be deterred from any enterprise because of the labour it entailed. He was strong in body and tall in stature. He was moderate in drinking, for he deplored drunkenness in all men. In speech he was fluent and persuasive, being skilled at all times in making clear his will. He followed the Christian discipline in which he had been brought up from childhood, and whenever his health permitted he regularly attended Christian worship each morning and at the celebration of mass. [ William of Jumieges, Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans (c. 1070)]
In later life William became very fat. In 1087 William was told that King Philip of France described him as looking like a pregnant woman. William got furious and mounted an attack on the king's territory. On 15th August he captured Mantes and set fire to the town. While fighting the French at the Battle of Mantes, he was thrown against the pommel of his saddle so violently that his intestines burst. Or, more diplomatically: "while the town burned he suffered some injury from which he never recovered".
In a suburb of Rouen, where he lay dying for five weeks, he prepared for death too:
William the Conqueror. . . realised that death was imminent. . . The wise king ordered all his treasures to be distributed among the churches and the poor. [Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)]
William also made a confession:
I tremble my friends[,] when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience, and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was bred to arms from my childhood, and am stained from the rivers of blood I have shed. . . It is out of my power to count all the injuries which I have caused during the sixty-four years of my troubled life. [Confession made by William the Conqueror on his deathbed in 1087. Quoted by Ordericus Vitalis in The Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)]
On his deathbed he repented an alarming amount of alarming sins. And apropos of his wife, Mathilda, he did not specifically state he repented killing his wife. The reason might well be he did not kill her in the first place. He killed and had many others killed and maimed, though.
Close to death, he directed that Robert Curthose should succeed him in Normandy and William Rufus should become king of England. He also ordered that his wealth should be distributed between the poor and the Church. William died on 9th September, 1087. [Spartacus Schoolnet Link]
He commended his soul to Virgin and Mother Mary, "that by her holy prayers she may reconcile me to her Son, my Lord Jesus Christ".
On September 9, 1087 - England's conqueror died. His servants stripped him bare and abandoned his body, but a kind-hearted knight arranged a funeral for him at the abbey of St. Stephen in Caen.
William of Jumieges (b. c. 1025 in Normandy - c. 1090) was a Benedictine monk at Jumieges. Around 1070 he compiled a history of the Norman rulers, The Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy. The book started with the story of Rollo the Ganger and ended with William the Conqueror. William sent a copy to William the Conqueror, and a letter that explained that the main purpose of the book was to demonstrate that William was the rightful king of England. Orderic Vitalis (Latin: Ordericus; 1075 – c. 1142) was an English chronicler and Benedictine monk who wrote one of the contemporary chronicles of 11th- and 12th-century Normandy and Anglo-Norman England. His Historia Ecclesiastica describes English social history in the Middle Ages.
Giles, J. A., ed. [Bede's] Ecclesiastical History of England. Also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. With Illustrative Notes, a Map of Anglo-Saxon England and a General Index. London: G. Bell, 1894.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version E, entry for 1087. [omacl.org/Anglo/]
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version E, entry for 1083. [omacl.org/Anglo/]
EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Online or yearly DVD Suite. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009.
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. "A superbly edited Latin text and a unique English translation of the work of a major historian." - American Historical Review.
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 chaplain of Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror), for whom he chronicled the Norman Conquest of England in his Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum ("The Deeds of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England") alias Gesta Guillelmi II ducis Normannorum. He had trained as a soldier before becoming a clergyman. William of Poitiers wrote the Gesta Guillelmi some time after 1066. It tells how Duke William prepared for conquering England, and did it. It 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 is an invaluable source for the Battle of Hastings in 1066. [WP, "William of Poitiers"]
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.
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