King William I of England , better known as William the Conqueror -- was born in 1027 or 1028. His father, Duke Robert I of Normandy, was known as "Robert the Devil" and "Robert the Magnificent." William was born of a liaison between the devilish duke and a tanner's daughter named Herleve or Herleva and popularly remembered as Arlette or Arletta.
According to legend, Robert and Arlette met when they were both in their late teens. Robert was riding his horse one day when he saw the lovely Arlette washing her clothes in a river. (According to another story, Arlette was dancing beside a road when Robert first spied her.) Instantly smitten, the duke sent one of his servants to summon Arlette to his castle. She agreed to become Robert's mistress, but insisted on living with him openly rather than conducting the affair in secrecy. Their son William was born within a year of their first meeting. Arlette later had a daughter, Adelaide, who may also have been Robert's child.
After her relationship with Robert ended, Arlette married a viscount with whom she had four children, including a son called Odo of Bayeux who would become one of William's most trusted advisors. William's sister Adelaide grew up to marry three counts.
When William was about eight, his father decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before leaving, Robert called his vassals together and ordered them to swear fealty to William. Reluctantly the men obeyed. Perhaps Robert did not expect to return from the Holy Land; if so, he was right. He died on his journey, and his illegitimate son became the new Duke of Normandy.
Robert's barons quickly forgot their vow of loyalty to William. When they weren't fighting amongst themselves, they were plotting to do away with the young duke in order to seize his power. First one of William's guardians, Gilbert of Brionne, was murdered; then William's uncle Osbern, Arlette's brother, was killed while protecting William from kidnappers who had invaded the boy's bedroom. William's tutor was also murdered. Not surprisingly, William's supporters decided to send him away from home for his own protection. William's uncle Walter -- brother of Arlette and Osbern -- frequently woke William in the dead of night and smuggled him to a new hiding place under cover of darkness.
Like most children of that time, William grew up fast. At around age fifteen he was knighted, and when he was nineteen or twenty he went to war against his cousin Guy of Burgundy to defend his inheritance. With the help of French king Henri I, he defeated Guy and forced the rebels to swear allegiance to him. But the battles of "William the Bastard," as his enemies called him, were far from over. He was always fighting someone -- even his erstwhile ally, Henri I. The beleaguered boy became a ruthless, powerful, and greatly feared conqueror.
When William was in his early twenties he asked Count Baldwin V of Flanders for his daughter Matilda's hand in marriage. But Matilda was already in love with an Englishman named Brihtric. She supposedly proclaimed that she would rather become a nun than the wife of a bastard, which made William so angry that he attacked her in the street as she left church one day. He slapped her, tore her clothes, threw her to the ground, and rode off.
Not an auspicious start to a marriage, yet William and Matilda did eventually marry, and they seem to have been quite happy together. They must have been an odd couple to behold, since William was tall and reportedly grew very fat later in life, while Matilda was short -- almost a dwarf -- and slender. They had at least four sons and five daughters. The pope objected to William and Matilda's marriage because they were distant cousins. For a while they (and everyone else in Normandy) were excommunicated, but after several years they were admitted back into the Church in return for building two abbeys.
In 1051 William paid a visit to the king of England, Edward the Confessor. Edward had been raised in Normandy, and he and William were cousins. The "Confessor" was a highly religious man who purportedly had the power to heal. His servants saved his bath water and gave it to sick people to drink, or put it in the eyes of the blind to restore their sight. A hundred years after his death Edward was made a Catholic saint.
Although he had a young wife, Edward was celibate and therefore childless. So he promised to make William his heir -- or at least, that's what William claimed.
Edward's brother-in-law Harold Godwinson visited Normandy in 1063 or 1064. According to some accounts Edward had sent Harold to see William; by other accounts, Harold only ended up in Normandy because his ship had been blown off course. Apparently he was not permitted to leave the country until he had sworn on holy relics that he would uphold William's claim to the English throne. He also promised to marry William's daughter Agatha, who was then just a child.
But Harold broke both of these promises, thereby setting the stage for the Norman invasion of England.
Conquest and Death
In January of 1066 the dying King Edward named Harold as his successor, thereby breaking his promise to leave the throne to William. Edward didn't really have the right to choose the next king; that right belonged to a royal council called the witan. The witan, too, chose Harold. He was crowned the day after Edward's death.
Outraged, William sent messages to Harold, reminding him that he had sworn to support William's claim to the throne and marry William's daughter Agatha. But Harold was already king, and he soon married another woman. It was not long before William had his revenge. In September of 1066 he invaded England, and on October 14 he defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Harold was killed by an arrow through the eye, and William became England's king. His coronation took place on Christmas Day.
The conqueror ruthlessly put down all opponents and subjugated the English people. Among those who suffered his wrath was the man who had been his wife Matilda's first love, the unfortunate Brihtric. He was thrown into a dungeon, where he died. Some people believe Matilda herself was responsible for Brihtric's sad fate; it is said he had rejected her marriage proposal years before, and after becoming queen she took her revenge by having him imprisoned, with or without William's consent.
William's family life was often turbulent. His most troublesome child was his eldest son, Robert Curthose, presumably so called because he had short legs (taking after the tiny Queen Matilda). When William refused to allow Robert to govern Normandy, his son allied with William's enemies. In 1079 the two actually met in one-on-one combat and Robert wounded William in the hand. William's favorite son, William Rufus, was also wounded in the battle. Yet the king and Robert later reconciled, and when William died he left Normandy to Robert. William Rufus inherited the throne of England.
The king also fell out with his half-brother Odo, who had fought by his side at Hastings and whom William had made a bishop. Odo committed some crime -- exactly what is not known -- and William sent him to prison for five years.
Another unfortunate member of William's family was his daughter Agatha, who had once expected to marry King Harold. It is said that she always loved Harold, and never wanted to another husband. In her teens she was betrothed to the king of Castile, but she died on her way to the wedding.
Age doesn't seem to have mellowed William much. He was still frequenting battlefields in his early sixties. While fighting the French at the Battle of Mantes, he was thrown against the pommel of his saddle so violently that his intestines burst. Five weeks later -- on September 9, 1087 -- England's conqueror died. His servants stripped him bare and abandoned his body, but a kind-hearted knight arranged a funeral for him at the abbey of St. Stephen in Caen.
The funeral was disrupted by the outbreak of a fire. After extinguishing it, the pallbearers tried to cram the king's bloated corpse into a too-small sarcophagus. The body exploded, creating a horrible smell that sent mourners running for the exits. Over the ensuing centuries William's tomb was twice desecrated by French rebels -- an ignoble end for one of history's greatest conquerors.
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Books About William the Conqueror
Harold and William: The Battle for England, A.D. 1064-1066 by Benton Patterson. (UK)
The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers by Gulielmus, R. H. C. Davis, and Marjorie Chibnall. Written by a priest who served in William the Conqueror's court. Includes an account of the Battle of Hastings. (UK)
William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England by David C. Douglas. A scholarly look at William and the Conquest. (UK)
William the Conqueror by Hilaire Belloc. (UK)
William Rufus by Frank Barlow. King William II, better known as William Rufus, was William the Conqueror's favorite son. A very unpopular king, William Rufus was murdered in 1100, perhaps at the instigation of his own brother. This biography presents William Rufus in an unusually sympathetic light. (UK)
William the Conqueror by David Bates. Biography. The author is a professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow. From Amazon.co.uk
Plantagenet Descent: Thirty One Generations from William the Conqueror to Today by Thomas R. Moore. The author traces his family's descent from William the Conqueror to the present day.
Royal Faces: From William the Conqueror to the Present Day by Dana Bentley-Cranch is a book of portraits.
King Edward the Confessor
The Life of St. Edward the Confessor by Aelred of Rievaulx, translated by Fr. Jerome Bertram. (UK)
God's Peace and King's Peace: The Laws of Edward the Confessor by Bruce R. O'Brien. (UK)
Edward the Confessor by Frank Barlow separates the facts of the king's life from myth. From Amazon.co.uk
Books about King Harold
Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian W. Walker is a biography of King Harold II, who died fighting William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. (UK)
The Wind from Hastings by Morgan Llywelyn is a novel about King Harold and his wife Edyth. (UK)
Lord of Sunset by Parke Godwin is another novel about the ill-fated King Harold and his wife. (UK)
The Last English King by Julian Rathbone is also a novel about King Harold. (UK)
Harold the King by Helen Hollick. Another novel. From Amazon.co.uk
The Norman Conquest
1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth. An entertaining and informative work of popular history.
Kings and Lords in Conquest England by Robin Fleming. A study of landholding and alliance in England from 950 to 1086, a period in which the fortunes of lay lords and their families rose and fell dramatically. (UK)
The Battle of Hastings by Jim Bradbury is an illustrated military history. (UK)
The Bayeux Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph by Wolfgang Grape. (UK)
The Domesday Book edited by Elizabeth Hallam and David Bates. (UK)
Domesday: The Inquest and the Book by David Roffe. (UK)
Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest by H. R. Loyn explores the social and economic conditions of the time.
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Catholic Encyclopedia: William the Conqueror
The Domesday Book
Laws of William the Conqueror
Secrets of the Norman Invasion
The Conqueror and His Companions
Useless Information: William the Conqueror
William I 'the Conqueror' (official British monarchy website)
Battle of Hastings 1066
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