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William I (1066-87)
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William I (1066-87)Born in 1028, William was the elder of two illegitimate sons born to Arlette of Falaise and Duke Robert I of Normandy (d. 1035). He grew up in a murderous atmosphere, protected by his determined mother, but by the age of 15 was strong enough to begin his own rule. William soon proved a vigorous soldier, defeating rebels to enforce his rule on Normandy; his methods were simple, often brutal, always effective. But William was more than a Viking throwback, impressing others by his fierce will, physical strength, love of hunting, and disciplined habits. He was a faithful husband to his wife Matilda, who bore at least nine children and acted as regent in Normandy while William was away conquering England.

William’s interest in England seems to have begun in his teens, when he met Edward the Confessor during Edward’s exile in France. A promise of the Crown may have been made in 1051, and in 1064/65 - according to Norman sources - William also extracted a forced promise from Harold Godwinson that the throne of England would pass to William when Edward died.

As soon as Harold was declared king in January 1066, William began war preparations. He crossed the Channel unopposed, landed his force successfully, established a bridgehead with prefabricated forts, and met the English in battle at Hastings on 14 October. This was a feat of military genius, and William’s brave leadership on that fateful day secured the Normans’ victory and his tide of Conqueror. English resistance flickered for some years, but William put down all rebellions with relentless severity. The old Saxon nobility lost their lands to Norman knights, and a similar Normanization took place in the Church. Unlike Cnut, who ruled England as he found it, William the Conqueror stamped his seal on England and reshaped it. The Domesday Book was an expression of the new system, and a testament to the ruler who caused it to be made. When William I died in 1087, Norman rule was secure.

The domesday book
William made only four visits to England between 1072 and 1087. The last occasion was noteworthy for the most astonishing feat of Norman bureaucracy - William’s survey of the kingdom, known as the Domesday Book. Nothing like it had been attempted before. County by county, landholdings were listed, described and assessed for tax and value, with comparisons drawn between 1066 and 1086. For historians, the Domesday Book is a price¬less record, giving a fascinating ‘snapshot’ in civil servants’ language of the land the Normans found.

‘St Peter’s of Westminster holds Patricesy [Battersea]. Earl Harold held it [in 10бб]. Then it answered for 72 hides, now for 18 hides ... 45 villagers and 16 smallholders with 14 ploughs. 8 slaves, 7 mills ... woodland at 50 pigs ...’
Battersea: from the Domesday Book


Crowned conqueror
William’s coronation (shown here in a later painting) took place on Christmas Day 1066. Guards at Westminster Abbey mistook shouts of acclaim for uprising and set fire to surrounding houses. The ceremony continued, although the clergy were terrified and the king ‘was trembling violently’.

William I (1066-87)


Castles across the land
The Normans embarked on a programme of castle-building, in which William (like most medieval kings) took a keen personal interest. Notice the workmen’s hod and trowel, unchanged today.

William I (1066-87)




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