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.
When William the Conqueror was born in 1027 or 1028, the stars didn’t seem to be in alignment for him.
Indeed, the famous nickname by which we all know him now didn’t really catch on until the 13th century; during his lifetime, he was called “William the Bastard” by some folks. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066 calls him this, and that’s because he was illegitimate.
He was the son of the about-to-be duke of Normandy, Robert. But he was the product of Robert’s liaison with a woman of fairly humble origins from the town of Falaise called Herleva. Despite this, however, Herleva was treated honourably and so was William. The assumption was likely that Robert might go on to marry a more church-sanctioned match with whom he would produce other children.
But what surprised everybody at Christmas in 1034, when William was still a little boy of six or seven, was that his dad decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never came back. And before he went off to the Holy Land, Robert took the precaution of getting the nobles of Normandy to swear an oath that they would accept William in the event that he didn’t return.
And so that’s what happened when the news came back from Nicea in 1035 that Robert had perished in the sands of the Middle East – the nobles accepted the illegitimate boy William as their new duke.
The problem with having a child on the throne
William’s illegitimacy wasn’t particularly a problem because the Normans were originally Vikings and the Vikings had traditionally been pagan. The Normans themselves were considerably more civilised than their Viking ancestors by 1035, but they were not particularly hung up on the idea of a church wedding.
But although William’s illegitimacy wasn’t a huge problem, his age was. In a warrior society in the early 11th century, having a child on the throne was a recipe for disaster. Lots of people who had ancient grudges with their neighbours took advantage of William being on the throne and took authority into their own hands.
So, very quickly, society in Normandy went to hell in a handcart and there were fires and rebellions all over the duchy.
One of the problems of that period is that contemporary sources aren’t that great; the very detailed ones are from about 100 years after the event. But we’re told that William was sleeping in his chamber in Normandy when his steward was murdered – had his throat cut – in the same chamber.
The question mark is whether William’s own life was actually in danger? Whether those who killed his steward were also planning to kill and replace him? Or whether it was simply factional fighting, an attempt to replace the people around William? It was probably the latter because if someone had wanted to take a seven-year-old boy in those circumstances then they wouldn’t have had a problem.
So, the people who were killed in that period were William’s protectors and guardians and they were replaced by their rivals who crop up in the very next charter or source as the people running the show.
But although William himself wasn’t killed, it would certainly have been a very frightening time for a seven or eight-year-old boy.
A young William takes charge
In any period of history like that, it suits some people when law and order breaks down or when established authority breaks down because people with ancient grievances can settle them themselves. So it suits men with strong right arms and twitchy swords. But the majority of people would have lamented the breakdown of order.
What ultimately righted the situation was William taking personal charge. We’re told he was knighted at a young age – around 15. That is pretty young but not impossibly young, and once he had been knighted it signified that he had come of age and was able to sort of wield the sword in his own right.
He was also associating by that age with other young men, other Norman nobles and magnates, who were his kind of boon companions throughout the rest of his life.
But although what turned the situation in Normandy around was William asserting his personal authority from the mid-1040s, the forces that arranged against him didn’t go down without a fight.
At the start of 1047, it looked like he was facing his biggest danger to date – there seems to have been a genuine attempt to replace him, a rebellion that broke out in the west of Normandy. It was sufficiently serious that William ran away to France to seek the help of his overlord, the French King Henry I.
The king obliged William and the two sides came to battle in a place near Caen called Val-es-Dunes. William was still only in his late teens at that point, but he was successful and so vindicated his right to rule.
Looking beyond Normandy
What William did in the first instance in terms of looking elsewhere, beyond Normandy, was to look elsewhere for a bride and he got married to the daughter of the Count of Flanders, Matilda. She was about the same age as William, just a little bit younger. But at that point he wasn’t starting to look with an acquisitive eye at other territory.
Throughout the next 10, 15 years of William’s career, he was on the defensive. Normandy was invaded by the Count of Anjou to the south, and William also fell out with the King of France, the man who’d come to his rescue in 1047.
But although Normandy was under threat for most of the 1050s, the crucial turning point in William’s career came in the year 1051 when he was invited to England.
That is something that has been debated in the 20th century, but it seems absolutely clear from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that William crossed the channel in 1051 to visit his second cousin King Edward the Confessor.
Apparently, that was the point at which William was promised the English throne by Edward upon his death. That obviously marked the seed being sown for the Norman conquest of England 15 years later. It’s entirely possible that that development is what caused the other magnates of France, particularly the king, to turn against William in the 1050s.
As a result, although William is set up to perhaps inherit England in 1051, for most of the decade that followed he was on the defensive and trying to protect Normandy’s borders rather than trying to enlarge them.
The problem with William is that, to some extent, we’re well informed about his activities because we have a contemporary biography written of him by his chaplain William of Poitier.
But because it was written for William or at least for William’s court, by a very sycophantic biographer, we only get this strident propagandist description of William’s “wonderful personality” and “wonderful achievements”.
What William of Poitier doesn’t tell us is why the King of France and the Count of Anjou and others turned against him.
But certainly in terms of the political balance of that part of the world, the notion that the Duke of Normandy and the King of England might be one and the same person at some point in the future would have been deeply worrying. So you can see why some people would have wanted to remove William before that happened.
Despite the unreliability of William’s biographer, his reputation as an extraordinary leader is borne out by the way his career unfolded. We know that he was successful in battle in 1047, we know that he was successful in battle in 1066.
One of the key things that leaps out at you while going over the sources is William’s relentlessness. Relentlessness or words to that effect are used by both William’s Norman biographer and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
There’s a telling line that says, “He was too relentlessness to care, even though everyone might hate him”. He’s almost got an ideological streak that says “God is on my side, I’m right. I’m going to do this, no matter what anybody says”.
So whether it was leading troops through the frozen wastes of northern England in 1069, 1070 when all of his soldiery were deserting, or chancing all at Hastings, he was prepared to take risks.
The thing about the Battle of Hastings and the Norman invasion of 1066 that people tend to forget is that it was very likely to have ended the other way around. Most of the risk was with William – he had to get all of his horses and ships of men across the channel. He was the one sailing into adverse weather. It was an incredibly, insanely risky undertaking.
You don’t do that kind of thing unless you think God is on your side. Unless you think that you will be vindicated when swords are drawn. And that seem to be the most striking thing about his personality – the belief that God was on his side, as well as the relentlessness driving him on.