When William the Conqueror crossed the Channel in 1066 with an army of 7,000 Normans, a new age of English history began. Headed by the mighty House of Normandy, this new dynasty of rulers ushered in the age of the motte-and-bailey castle, the feudal system, and the English language as we know it.
Norman rule in England was not without its challenges, however. Rife with tension and dynastic uncertainty, rebellion raged, family imprisoned (or perhaps even killed) one another, and the country teetered on the edge of anarchy several times.
Over the course of their century-long reign, here are the 4 Norman kings who ruled England in order:
1. William the Conqueror
Born in around 1028, William the Conqueror was the illegitimate child of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and Herleva, a woman at court said to have caught Robert’s heart, despite not being of noble blood. After the death of his father he became the powerful Duke of Normandy, and in 1066 William found himself as one of the 5 claimants to the English throne, upon the death of Edward the Confessor.
On 28 September 1066 he sailed across the English Channel and met Harold Godwinson, the most powerful claimant to the throne, at the Battle of Hastings. William won the now-infamous battle, becoming the new King of England.
To consolidate his rule, William set about building a vast legion of motte-and-bailey castles across the country, installing his closest Norman lords in positions of power, and reorganising the existing English society into a new tenurial system. His rule was not without opposition however.
In 1068 the North rebelled, slaughtering the Norman lord who William had instated as Earl of Northumberland. William responded by burning every village from the Humber to the Tees to the ground, slaughtering their inhabitants and salting the earth so that widespread famine followed.
This became known as the ‘harrying of the North’, of which medieval chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote, “nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty.”
In 1086, William sought to further confirm his power and wealth by drawing up the Domesday Book. Recording the population and ownership of every scrap of land in the country, the Domesday Book revealed that in the 20 years since the Norman invasion, William’s plan of conquest had been a triumph.
He held 20% of the wealth in England, his Norman barons 50%, the Church 25%, and the old English nobility just 5%. Anglo-Saxon dominancy in England was over.
2. William Rufus
In 1087 William the Conqueror died and was succeeded as King of England by his son William II, also known as Rufus (the Red, due to his red hair). He was succeeded as Duke of Normandy by his eldest son Robert, and his third son Henry was given the short end of the stick – £5,000.
Severing the Norman lands bred deep rivalry and unrest between the brothers, with William and Robert attempting to take one another’s lands on numerous occasions. In 1096 however, Robert diverted his military attentions east to join the First Crusade, bringing a semblance of peace between the pair as William ruled as regent in his absence.
William Rufus was not an entirely popular king and was often at odds with the church – particularly Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. The pair disagreed on a host of ecclesiastical issues, with Rufus once stating, “yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.”
As Rufus never took a wife or fathered any children it has often been suggested that he was either homosexual or bisexual, further alienating him from his barons and the churchmen of England. His brother Henry, a known schemer, is thought to have also stirred up disquiet amongst these powerful groups.
On 2 August 1100, William Rufus and Henry were hunting in the New Forest with a party of nobles when an arrow was shot through the king’s chest, killing him. Though recorded as being accidentally shot by one of his men, Walter Tirel, the circumstances of William’s death has beguiled historians since its occurrence, particularly as Henry then raced to Winchester to secure the royal treasury before being crowned King mere days later in London.
3. Henry I (1068-1135)
Now on the throne, the harsh but effective Henry I set about consolidating his power. He married Matilda of Scotland in 1100 and the pair had two children: William Adelin and Empress Matilda. Though he had inherited the conflict with his brother Robert of Normandy, in 1106 this was quashed when Henry invaded his brother’s territory, capturing and imprisoning him for the rest of his life.
In England, he then began promoting a host of ‘new men’ in positions of power. Barons who were already wealthy and powerful had no need for a monarch’s patronage. Men on the rise, however, were all too willing to offer their loyalty in exchange for reward. Transforming the monarchy’s financial situation, the Exchequer was created during Henry’s reign, in which sheriffs from across the country would bring their money to the king to be counted.
On 25 November 1120, the future of the English succession was thrown in chaos. Henry and his 17-year-old son and heir William Adelin were returning from fighting in Normandy, sailing across the English Channel on separate boats. With its passengers utterly drunk in revelry, the White Ship carrying William smashed into a rock off Barfleur in the darkness and all were drowned (except a lucky butcher from Rouen). It is said Henry I never smiled again.
Beset with anxiety over who would succeed him, Henry obliged the barons, nobles, and bishops of England to swear fealty to his new heir, Matilda.
4. Stephen (1096-1154)
A woman had never ruled England in her own right, and following Henry’s sudden death on 1 December 1135 many began to doubt whether one could.
With Matilda on the continent with her new husband Geoffrey V of Anjou, waiting in the wings to fill her place was Stephen of Blois, Henry I’s nephew. In a bizarre twist of fate, Stephen had too been on the White Ship that fateful day, yet left before it set off, as he was suffering a terrible stomach ache.
Stephen immediately sailed from Normandy to claim the crown, helped by his brother Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester who conveniently held the keys to the royal treasury. The furious Matilda, meanwhile, began amassing an army of supporters and set sail to invade England in 1141. The civil war known as the Anarchy had begun.
In 1141, at the Battle of Lincoln Stephen was captured and Matilda proclaimed Queen. She was never crowned, however. Before she could make her way to Westminster she was thrown out of London by its disgruntled citizens.
Stephen was released, where he was crowned a second time. The following year he almost captured Matilda at the siege of Oxford Castle, yet she slipped away unseen through the snowy landscape, dressed in white from head to toe.
By 1148 Matilda had given up and returned to Normandy, but not without leaving one thorn in Stephen’s side: her son Henry. After two decades of fighting, in 1153 Stephen signed the Treaty of Wallingford declaring Henry his heir. He died the following year and was replaced by Henry II, beginning a period of reconstruction and prosperity in England under the Angevin branch of the mighty House of Plantagenet.