Is William the Conqueror’s Reputation for Cruelty and Savagery Fair?

History Hit Podcast with Marc Morris

3 mins

27 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of William: Conqueror, Bastard, Both? with Dr Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 23 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

William the Conqueror is very hard to empathise with. His counterinsurgencies to put down the many rebellions in England that followed the Norman conquest make him sound like a sort of sadistic maniac.

Despite this, we were always told for the last 60 or so years that, when William died in 1087, some people at his funeral remembered some very surprising qualities about him. He was cheerful, he was eloquent, he was affable, they said – so there was apparently this other side to his character, which you might not necessarily associate with the brutal conqueror. 

However, that was actually the result of Hugh of Flavigny’s Chronicle having been mistranslated – all those positive adjectives were actually about the Abbot of Verdun. So, we no longer have any really good evidence for a cheerful, affable William the Conqueror. 

William’s English obituary writer

Having said all that, it’s still useful to look at what was said about William by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because one of the very best sources for the Norman king’s reign and character is his obituary in the Chronicle.

One, because it’s long and detailed but, two, because it was written by an anonymous Englishman – it’s written in Old English – who says he lived at William’s court and saw him with his own eyes. So it’s written from the point of view of the conquered. 

Medieval historian Marc Morris answers the key questions about 1066.Watch Now

As you’d expect, this writer says there are certain good things about William’s rule, that he kept good order and he feared God and those kinds of things. And he built an abbey at Battle, the site of the Battle of Hastings. He also lays into William for the bad things, however. 

He says he was greedy, that he extracted way too much gold, and that he built far more castles than was necessary.

That’s another crime against him, because William commanded hundreds of castles to be built in the 20 odd years of his reign.

The writer also condemns him for introducing the Royal Forest. So, there are lots of things that the Chronicle gets exercised about. But the surprising thing is that he doesn’t accuse William of being cruel, a chant that is often laid at William’s door by modern historians – that he was a cruel, savage man, because he chopped people’s hands or feet off.

Hands and feet but not heads

So we have this silence from the Chronicle regarding William being cruel or savage. The thing is, William did do all those things – he did chop off people’s hands and feet if they rebelled against him. But that was true of every other 11th-century warrior or warrior king.

That is the way that people did politics and warfare in the mid-11th century. If you look at the Vikings or the Anglo-Saxons before 1066 they’re doing exactly the same thing, if not worse. 

William may have had people’s hands and feet chopped off, but not their heads.

The interesting thing about William is that we’re told he locked up his prisoners for a long time and kept people in prison forever and ever and ever. And again, modern historians have said that that shows what a cruel man he was, but the alternative to locking people up is chopping their heads off.

What differentiated William from earlier kings of England and, indeed, other rulers in the Anglo-Saxon or Viking worlds is that he didn’t chop people’s heads off – almost without exception.

He didn’t execute his political enemies in the way that Viking and Anglo-Saxon rulers prior to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 had done as a matter of routine. 

So there have been arguments around for about a quarter of a century now suggesting that William was the king who introduced chivalry to England. At the same time as there were rebellions kicking off everywhere in England following the Norman conquest, with hundreds of thousands of people being killed, the way that the English did politics at the highest level changed as a result of William’s rule.

It meant that if  people were captured or surrendered then they were not executed; instead, they were imprisoned or held for ransom, and, maybe, one day further down the line, even released.

Medieval historian Marc Morris answers the key questions about 1066.Watch Now

William’s legacy today

His legacy during his lifetime and after his death was obviously one of extreme violence and upheaval and disruption. People also noticed every major church being rebuilt, as well the building of hundreds of new castles. So the physical appearance of England was drastically changed by William. 

But 950 years on, very few of those consequences are so apparent. The thing we live with today that is a direct result of William and the Norman conquest, of course, is the language we’re speaking now, which is a mongrel tongue of English and Norman, Norman-French.