Monday, September 28, 2015

Today in 1066 William the Conqueror invades England

Claiming his right to the English throne, William, duke of Normandy, invades England at Pevensey on Britain’s southeast coast. His subsequent defeat of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings marked the beginning of a new era in British history.

William the Conqueror (1027-28–1087) - King William I, reigned 1066–87 Unknown Artist painted about 1590s-1620

William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, duke of Normandy, by his lover Arlette, a tanner’s daughter from the town of Falaise. As the love child of an affair between Robert I, duke of Normandy, & his lover, William was said to be known to his contemporaries, mostly envious enemies, as William the Bastard for much of his life. His critics continued to use this moniker (behind his back) even after he defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings & earned a more formal title upgrade to William the Conqueror.

Duke Robert I, who had no other sons, designated William his heir, & with his death in 1035, William became duke of Normandy at age seven.  

Though he spoke a dialect of French & grew up in Normandy, a fiefdom loyal to the French kingdom, William & most other Normans descended from Scandinavian invaders. William’s great-great-great-grandfather, Rollo, pillaged northern France with fellow Viking raiders in the late 9C & early 10C, eventually accepting his own territory (Normandy, named for the Norsemen who controlled it) in exchange for peace.

Rebellions were epidemic during the early years of William's reign, & on several occasions the young duke narrowly escaped death. Many of his advisers did not. By the time he was 20, William had become an able ruler backed by King Henry I of France. Henry later turned against him, but William survived the opposition, & in 1063, he expanded the borders of his duchy into the region of Maine.

During William’s siege of Alençon, a disputed town on the border of Normandy, in the late 1040s or early 1050s, residents are said to have hung animal hides on their walls. They mocked him for being the grandson of a tanner, referring to the occupation of his mother’s father. To avenge her honor, he had their hands & feet cut off.

William the Conqueror (1027-28–1087) Unknown Artist painted about 1580 

When William asked for the hand of Matilda of Flanders, a granddaughter of France’s King Robert II, she initially demurred. According to legend, the snubbed duke tackled Matilda in the street, pulling her off her horse by her long braids. In any event, she consented to marry him & bore him 10 children before her death in 1083, which plunged William into a deep depression.

In 1051, William is believed to have visited England & met with his cousin Edward the Confessor, the childless English king. According to Norman historians, cousin Edward promised to make William his heir. On his deathbed, however, Edward granted the kingdom to Harold Godwine, head of the leading noble family in England more powerful than the king himself.

In January 1066, King Edward died, & Harold Godwine was proclaimed King Harold II. William immediately disputed his claim. In addition, King Harald III Hardraade of Norway had designs on England, as did Tostig, brother of Harold. King Harold rallied his forces for an expected invasion by William, but Tostig launched a series of raids instead, forcing the king to leave the English Channel unprotected. In September, Tostig joined forces with King Harald III & invaded England from Scotland. On September 25, King Harold II met them at Stamford Bridge & defeated killing them both. Three days later, William landed in England at Pevensey.

With approximately 7,000 troops & cavalry, William seized Pevensey & marched to Hastings, where he paused to organize his forces. On October 13, King Harold II arrived near Hastings with his army, & the next day William led his forces out to give battle. William’s jester rode beside him during the invasion of England, lifting the troops’ spirits by singing about heroic deeds. When they reached enemy lines, he taunted the English by juggling his sword & was promptly killed, initiating the historic skirmish. At the end of a bloody, all-day battle, King Harold II was killed (shot in the eye with an arrow, according to legend), & his forces were defeated.

William the Conqueror (1027-28–1087) Unknown Artist painted about 1618 

William then marched on London & received the city’s submission. On Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned the 1st Norman king of England, in Westminster Abbey, & the Anglo-Saxon phase of English history came to an end. 

William spoke no English when he ascended the throne, & he failed to master it despite his efforts. (Like most nobles of his time, he also happened to be illiterate.) Thanks to the Norman invasion, French was spoken in England’s courts for centuries & completely transformed the English language, infusing it with new words. French became the language of the king’s court & gradually blended with the Anglo-Saxon tongue to give birth to modern English. 

Described as strapping & healthy in his earlier years, William apparently ballooned later in life. It is said that King Philip of France likened him to a pregnant woman about to give birth. According to some accounts, the corpulent conqueror became so dismayed with his size; that he devised his own version of a fad diet, consuming only wine & spirits for a period of time. It didn’t work, he remained overweight, but he could more easily forget about it.

Despite his worries about his size, William I proved an effective king of England, and the “Domesday Book,” a great census of the lands and people of England, was among his notable achievements. Upon the death of William I in 1087, his son, William Rufus, became William II, the 2nd Norman king of England.