History of the British Monarchy, Part II: William the Conqueror & The Normans

“The Battle of Hastings” by Francis William Wilkin, 1820.

The legendary figure known today as William the Conqueror, from who all British monarchs of the past thousand years have descended, is born in 1028 as William the Bastard, the illegitimate son of the unmarried Robert, Duke of Normandy.

The Duke dies when William is just seven years old, and upon the Duke’s death, it was revealed that he had left everything to William. This was the first anyone had even heard of William, and here he is inheritor of most of northern France. Constantly the target of assassination plots by jealous noblemen who view him as unworthy and illegitimate, the Boy Duke nevertheless survives into adulthood, hardened and battle-worn by his life’s constant struggles and violence.

At age 23, he marries Matilda, the King of France’s granddaughter. Already the Duke of Normandy, marriage into Matilda’s family only brings him more power, land and wealth. After putting down an uprising by the still-resentful Norman Barons and noblemen, William is able to solidify his rule over the Norman domain.

Shortly after his marriage to Matilda in 1051, word arrived that King Edward the Confessor of England will name William his successor. But the Godwins, perhaps the most powerful family in England, covet the throne, and work tirelessly over the next 15 years to convince the King to reconsider. On his deathbed in January 1066, the King apparently relents and names Harold Godwinson the new king.

Because of his family’s power, Harold earns the consent of the Witengamot, a sort of precursor to Parliament consisting of nobles and high-ranking church officials, thus legitimizing his accession.

Harold Godwinson

William is irate. He feels cheated and betrayed. Though he and Harold are rivals, Harold had, in 1064, promised to support and defend William’s right to succeed King Edward.

During the summer of 1066, William begins raising an army and a fleet of ships to traverse the Channel, rallying the Norman nobility to support him in his bid for the English throne. He is setting out to take what he believes is rightfully his.

But William is not the only one who seeks to contest Harold’s right to succeed King Edward; Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig, throws his support behind the Viking Harald Hadrada, the King of Norway, who himself desires to expand his dominion.

King Harold is aware of the twin threats to his young reign. He knows he faces a threat from the south in William, as well as a threat from the northeast in Hadrada and Tostig. Figuring an invasion by William to come first, he masses his forces along the southern coastline earlier in 1066. But after months pass and no sign of William’s fleet, he takes his forces and goes north to await the Vikings. In September, Hadrada and Tostig cross the North Sea and land on the island’s northeastern coast near York. King Harold is there to meet them.

As Harold is preoccupied with the Vikings, William prepares to invade England. All he needs are favorable winds to cross the channel, so he waits. The narrowest part of the English Channel is only about 21 miles across, and on a clear day you can see the white cliffs of Dover from the French coastline with the naked eye. However, in an era where sailboats ruled the high seas, crossing the channel was entirely dependent on the winds. And the weather can turn unfavorable very quickly, so despite the short distance, the voyage from France to England is not as easy as it seems.

Tostig and Harald, meanwhile, clash with Harold’s forces at Stamford Bridge, which is near present-day York, and about 170 miles north of London. Stamford Bridge ultimately turns into a smashing victory for King Harold, as Tostig and Hadrada both die in the battle, along with most of their men. This marks the end of the Viking incursions into England and sets the stage for a major battle that will decide the throne: the legendary Battle of Hastings.

A summary:

“Meanwhile, on the Continent, William has secured support for his invasion from both the Norman aristocracy and the papacy. By August 1066 he has assembled a force of 4,000–7,000 knights and foot soldiers, but unfavorable winds detain his transports for eight weeks. Finally, on September 27, while Harold is occupied in the north, the winds change, and William crosses the Channel immediately. Landing in Pevensey on September 28, he moves directly to Hastings. Harold, hurrying southward with about 7,000 men, approaches Hastings on October 13. Surprised by William at dawn on October 14, Harold draws up his army on a ridge 10 miles (16 km) to the northwest.

Hastings is on the Southern English coast:

Harold’s wall of highly trained infantry holds firm in the face of William’s mounted assault; failing to breach the English lines and panicked by the rumor of William’s death, the Norman cavalry fled in disorder. But William, removing his helmet to show he was alive, rallies his troops, who turn and kill many English soldiers. As the battle continues, the English are gradually worn down; late in the afternoon, Harold is killed (by an arrow in the eye, according to the Bayeux Tapestry), and by nightfall the remaining English have scattered and fled. William then makes a sweeping advance to isolate London, and at Berkhamstead, the major English leaders submit to him.”

William’s victory at Hastings is a defining moment in the history of the British monarchy. He is fortunate that Harold Godwinson’s army was tired and worn from their battle with the Vikings at Stamford Bridge. Indeed, it was only three days after Stamford Bridge that William invaded from Normandy, forcing Harold and his men to rush nearly 300 miles south.

Nonetheless, Hastings is the moment William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy became “William the Conqueror.” He is crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, and puts an end to the era of Anglo Saxon kings.

William deals with various uprisings and rebellions during the first several years of his reign, putting all of them down and securing the whole of England under his rule. He builds over 80 castles throughout the land, and though medieval England is synonymous with old stone castles, William was the first to build them on the island. They serve as strongholds for his loyal Norman noblemen, entrusted with managing local and regional affairs for the King.

William also famously orders the first major census of England, which results in the famous Domesday Book.

His taking of England is significant in many ways:

The impact on England of William’s conquest was profound; changes in the Church, aristocracy, culture, and language of the country have persisted into modern times. The Conquest brought the kingdom into closer contact with France and forged ties between France and England that lasted throughout the Middle Ages. Another consequence of William’s invasion was the sundering of the formerly close ties between England and Scandinavia. William’s government blended elements of the English and Norman systems into a new one that laid the foundations of the later medieval English kingdom.


Many French names that are still popular today — such as William, Robert and Henry — came into to English culture after 1066, replacing the traditional Anglo Saxon names like Godwin and Harold.

William does not rule England from England. Like the earlier Viking invaders, he rules England as but a part of his larger empire, and spends his time on the European continent in his native home of Normandy.

The Norman Empire in 1087

Upon King William’s death in 1087, his son, William Rufus, inherits England. Interestingly, William Rufus is not the Conqueror’s oldest living son — that would be Robert. But on the King’s deathbed, he states that Robert ought to inherit Normandy, while the middle brother William Rufus will be crowned King of England. The youngest brother, Henry, inherits 5,000 pounds. None of the three are satisfied. Robert wants to be King of England, William Rufus wants to take Normandy from his brother, and Henry simply wants more than the table scraps from his older brothers — mainly, Henry wants the two out of the way so he can take everything.

With Henry’s encouragement and provocation on both sides, King William and Robert descend into conflict and attempt to take each other’s territories. Henry’s goal, of course, is to weaken both, so he changes sides frequently. Eventually, Robert gives up and goes off to fight in the Crusades in the Holy Land. With Robert out of the way, Henry positions himself close to King William, but with the worst of intentions.

Henry begins by turning the church on King William. It’s not difficult for him to do, as it there are strong rumors that the unmarried, childless King William II is in fact secretly gay. The church detests him for this.

On August 2, 1100, while hunting with his brother Henry and several others in New Forest on the southern coast, a “stray” arrow strikes the King in the chest and he dies almost instantly.

The spot in New Forest where King William was killed.

With his brother, the King, dead and the church firmly on his side, Henry has a nearly clear path to the throne. The only remaining problem is that Robert, his oldest brother, is technically the rightful heir. But with Robert away and Henry’s strong allies in the nobility and the church–he is actually elected king, the first to be honored thusly since Harold Godwinson –he is able to secure the crown for himself at the age of 32.

With his support among the nobility solidified, Henry is secure on the throne. But this does not stop his brother, Robert, from mounting a futile attempt to take England. After Robert’s invasion is easily repelled, he agrees to recognize his younger brother as rightful king and stand down. Not content, Henry invades Normandy in 1106, captures his brother and imprisons him for the rest of his life. Notably, Henry’s father, William the Conqueror, was a Norman who invaded England and made it a part of the Norman empire. But Henry, who only possessed England, invades Normandy and seizes it for England. Normandy is now a part of England, rather than the other way around.

Henry I split his time between England and Normandy, and in his absence, England is run by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. As the History File series puts it, “the idea of government by system, rather than by a man, is beginning to take hold.”

King Henry I

England is a peaceful and stable kingdom under Henry’s rule. He is adept with the kingdom’s finances, always keeping the coffers full. He sends his daughter, Matilda, away to Germany to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. And his oldest son, William, is a fine young man being groomed for the throne, always included in his father’s military endeavors. In a grand ceremony at Salisbury in 1116, King Henry gathers all the nobility in England to proclaim their loyalty to Prince William, and promise to support William’s ascension upon the King’s death. King Henry certainly has his kingdom’s affairs in order.

On November 25, 1120, returning home to England after accompanying his father on a military campaign into France, Prince William and his closest friends load up on a longboat called the White Ship to cross the Channel on the way back home. The Prince and his friends are, as the History File puts it, “the 12th century Jet Set; the millionaire knightly lads who were heirs to most of England and Normandy.” At once the young men began drinking and partying, becoming excessively drunk. Night has fallen, and all the other ships have already crossed. William, wanting to catch up to his father, orders full-steam ahead.

The longboat strikes a rock and sinks, killing the Prince and all the young heirs onboard. King Henry is crushed, and legend has it he never smiles again.

The White Ship sinking.

In 1126, Henry names his daughter, Matilda, heir to the throne, and though the matter of succession appears settled, the fact remains that England has never had a Queen as sole monarch. Plus, Matilda had remarried upon the death of her first husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. Her new husband is Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou, a French nobleman whose family is a traditional enemy of the Norman aristocrats, so very few were pleased by the prospect of Matilda and her husband Geoffrey assuming the throne when the King dies.

However, before Henry dies in 1135, he agrees to name his nephew (William the Conqueror’s grandson), Stephen of Blois (“blew-ah”), rightful heir. Stephen is the son and namesake of a former Crusader, the King’s nephew and a close cousin of the late Prince William. He was supposed to be on the doomed White Ship voyage when it tragically capsized in 1120, but the word is that a sudden bout of diarrhea caused him to stay back and take a later ship.

As fate would have it, this sudden illness is what ultimately makes Stephen king 15 years later.

Stephen of Blois

When King Henry dies, Stephen sails to England from Normandy and takes the crown, rejecting Matilda’s claim to the throne. The nobility and the Church favor Stephen over his cousin Matilda due to her Angevin (as well as German) connections.

But Matilda, who still feels entitled to the throne despite her cousin Stephen’s accession, sails for England in February 1141 with an army loyal to her. They manage to depose and capture King Stephen. Due in large part to Stephen having to fend off enemies from all sides— from foreign invaders to domestic insurrectionists, not to mention his own family — Stephen’s reign is cut short. Matilda’s army imprisons Stephen and she attempts to take the crown for herself. But angry mobs of Londoners mutiny and prevent her from ever being officially crowned Queen, largely due to her insistence on gaining absolute power and unwillingness to respect the rule of law.

In September of 1141, however, after several victories by forces loyal to Stephen and the capture of a key Matilda ally–her half-brother and main general Robert of Gloucester–the tide turns decisively against the Angevins. Matilda agrees to release Stephen in exchange for the release of Robert. Stephen quickly retakes the throne.

However, this does not settle matters — rather, it begins a nearly two-decade period of strife and civil warfare known as “The Anarchy”. Attrition warfare and periodic eruptions of fighting characterize the conflict. King Stephen’s forces control southeast England as well as the Midlands (the central region of the island), while Matilda’s forces hold the southwest. The Scots led by King David I, in an alliance with Matilda, invade England from the north but are beaten back by Stephen’s forces.

Around Christmas 1142, Stephen’s forces have Matilda cornered at Oxford Castle. It appears Stephen’s final victory is imminent, so he orders his forces to settle in for a long siege, figuring he will wait for his cousin to surrender.

But in the dead of night, and with the good fortune of a fresh snowfall, Matilda and a small company of guards sneak out of the besieged castle through a secret exit. Wearing all white to blend in with the snow, Matilda escapes from right under Stephen’s nose.

She crosses the frozen Thames River and is able to flee to Wallingford, about 13 miles to the south, before Stephen’s men even realize what has happened.

Matilda escapes Oxford Castle in the dead of night

Neither side is able to achieve a decisive edge during the Anarchy. But although Stephen remains king for the duration of the conflict, Matilda’s forces keep the pressure on the crown. By this point, Matilda and Geoffrey have returned to Normandy.

After Robert of Gloucester’s death in 1147, their son, Henry FitzEmpress, takes over control of the conflict with Stephen, which is no longer truly a war but essentially a period of stalemate where England is divided by those with competing claims on the throne. Though there is a king, he does not exert control over the whole of England, only a portion. It is a stalemate, as no one is able to gain a decisive edge over the others — thus the name, “Anarchy.”

In early 1153, 20-year-old Henry launches an invasion of England. By this point King Stephen is eager to bring an end to the long conflict. Due to Henry’s growing strength as he convinces English noblemen to join his side, it appears a decisive end to the conflict is nigh as the two head for a major battle at Wallingford in July. However, the church steps in to broker a truce between the two sides, which comes to be known as the Treaty of Wallingford. During this time, Stephen’s oldest son and heir, Eustace, falls ill and dies as he is frantically trying to raise money and troops to resume the fight against Henry. The 58-year-old Stephen then agrees to name Henry his successor, snubbing his youngest son, William, who is 16.

The treaty marks the effective settlement of the two-decade long power struggle known as the Anarchy. The King and his newly chosen successor, Henry, ride south for London to announce their agreement.

Stephen loses not only his eldest son to illness in 1153 but his wife, too. After hashing out a settlement with Henry, the King has largely ended the Anarchy, although England remains fractured. In fall 1154, exhausted and thoroughly spent, King Stephen falls ill. His health deteriorates rapidly and he dies on October 25.

Henry FitzEmpress is crowned Henry II, King of England, and the Norman dynasty is now finished.

Now begins the 300+ year reign of House Plantagenet, Britain’s greatest royal dynasty.

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