William the Conqueror, KING OF ENGLAND AND DUKE OF NORMANDY, was the natural son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, his mother, Herleva, being the daughter of a tanner of Falaise. In 1035 Robert set out upon a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in which he died. Before starting he presented to the nobles this child, then seven years old, demanding their allegiance. “He is little”, the father said, “but he will grow, and, if God please, he will mend.” In spite of the murder of three of his guardians, and of attempts to kidnap his own person, the child, after a period of anarchy, became the ruler of Normandy in his father’s place. He seems to have been a youth of clean life and of much natural piety, while the years of storm and stress through which he passed gave him an endurance and far-sighted resolution of character which lasted to his life’s end. In 1047 a serious rebellion of the nobles occurred, and William with the aid of Henry, King of France, gained a great victory at Val-es-Dunes, near Caen, which led, the following year, to the capture of the two strong castles of Alencon and Domfront. Using these as his base of operations, the young duke, in 1054 and the following years, made himself master of the province of Maine and thus became the most powerful vassal of the French Crown, able on occasion to bid defiance to the king himself.
Meanwhile William had begun to take a great interest in English affairs. How far his visit to England in 1051 was directly prompted by designs upon the throne, it is impossible to say. It is in any case likely that his marriage, in spite of the papal prohibition, with Matilda, the daughter of the Earl of Flanders, in 1053, was intended as a check upon the influence exercised in that powerful quarter by Earl Godwin and his sons. Through the mediation of Lanfranc, the future archbishop, the union was legitimized by papal dispensation in 1059, but William and his wife consented to found two abbeys at Caen, by way of penance for their contumacy. Edward the Confessor had been brought up in Normandy, for he was the nephew of Duke Richard II (d. 1026). All through the reign, the king himself and at least a minority of his subjects had turned their eyes across the water, realizing that the Continent represented in general higher religious ideals and higher culture than prevailed at home. Whether any explicit promise of the succession had been made to the duke may be doubted, but one fact stands out clearly from a mass of obscure and often conflicting details: that King Harold, about the year 1064, finding himself on Norman soil, was constrained to take a solemn oath of allegiance to William. Neither can there be much doubt that this pledge was given with explicit reference to the duke’s intention of contesting the English throne. The repudiation of this oath by Harold at the Confessor‘s death enabled William to assume the character of an avenger of perjury. He was probably sincere enough in believing himself constituted by God champion of the Church, and in obtaining from Pope Alexander II not only a blessing on his enterprise, but the gift of a specially consecrated banner as for a religious crusade. A century later Henry II, when projecting his conquest of Ireland, adopted a similar role. At the same time it is not now disputed by impartial historians (e.g. H. C. Davis, or C. Oman) that the claim to establish a better order of things was in fact justified by the event. “The Norman Conquest”, says H. C. Davis, “raised the English to that level of culture which the continental people had already reached and left it for the Plantagenets of Anjou to make England in her turn `a leader among nations’.”
After the invasion and the decisive battle of Hastings, William at once marched on London, and there the best and wisest men of the kingdom—for example, such influential prelates as Aldred, Archbishop of York, and St. Wulstan, Bishop of Worcester came in and tendered submission. Before the end of the year the king was crowned by Aldred (to the exclusion of Stigand) in the newly consecrated abbey-church of Westminster. In 1067 William revisited Normandy, but, owing perhaps in part to the tactlessness or incapacity of the regents, Odo of Bayeux and William Fitzosborn, he was recalled by an alarming series of popular outbreaks: first the southwest, with Exeter for a rallying-point, then the Welsh border, under the Earls Edwin and Morcar, then Northumbria, under Earl Gospatric, to be followed next year (1069) by a still more formidable rising in the north, assisted by the Danes. William met these attempts intrepidly, but sternly. In Northumbria, after the second insurrection, he inflicted a terrible vengeance. 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 centers 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. The Conqueror could respect a brave foe, and he seems, in 1071, to have granted honorable terms to Hereward, the leader of the desperate resistance in the fen-country. But to Waltheof, after the collapse of the rebellion of the earls in 1075, no mercy was shown. The motive was probably political, for Lanfranc, who was with him at the last, pronounced him guiltless of the offense for which he died.
Having at last reduced the country to submission, William set to work with statesmanlike deliberation to establish his government on a firm and lasting basis. He rewarded his followers with large grants of land, but he was careful to distribute these grants in such a way that the concentration of great territorial power in the same hands was avoided. The new fiefs recorded in Domesday are vast, but scattered. Saxon institutions were as far as possible retained, especially when they might serve as a check upon the power of the great feudatories. For the most part William continued to govern through the sheriffs and the courts of the shire and of the hundred. The national levy of the fyrd was retained, and it helped to render the king less dependent upon his vassals. In spite of heavy taxation, the new government was not altogether unpopular, for the Conqueror had confirmed “the laws of Edward”, and the people looked to him as their natural protector against feudal oppression. The least acceptable part of the Norman regime was probably the enforcement of the cruel forest laws; but on the other hand, modern authorities are agreed that the chroniclers of a later age enormously exaggerated the devastation said to have been caused in Hampshire by the making of the New Forest.
As for William’s ecclesiastical policy, he seems conscientiously to have carried out a program of wise reform. His appointments of bishops were on the whole excellent. The separation of the secular and spiritual courts was a measure of supreme and far-reaching importance. The influence of the great monastic revival of Cluny was now, through Lan-franc, brought to bear on many English foundations. To the pope, William was ever careful to show himself a considerate and respectful son, even on such occasions as when he firmly resisted the claim made by Gregory VII to feudal homage. On the other hand, St. Gregory himself commended the king for the zeal he had shown in securing the freedom of the Church, and he was content, while such a spirit prevailed, to leave the sovereign practically free in his appointments to English bishoprics. Altogether, Mr. C. Oman does not exaggerate when he tells us that before the Conquest “the typical faults of the dark ages, pluralism, simony, lax observance of the canons, contented ignorance, worldliness in every aspect, were all too prevalent in England“; but he adds that by the Conqueror’s wise policy “the condition of the Church alike in the matter of spiritual zeal, of hard work and of learning, was much improved”. In the last years of William’s reign a great deal of his attention was absorbed by the political complications which threatened his Continental dominions and by the undutiful attitude of his sons. It was in avenging a gibe levelled against him by the King of France that the Conqueror met with an accident on horseback, which terminated fatally September 9, 1087. He had an edifying end and died commending his soul to Our Lady, “that by her holy prayers she may reconcile me to her Son, my Lord Jesus Christ“. The Saxon chronicler summed up William’s character well when he wrote: “He was mild to good men who loved God, and stark beyond all bounds to those who withsaid his will.”
(For further details see England. Before the Reformation.)