William the Conqueror (1027/8 – 1086)

47 Generations of Family History

Generation 30

Guillaume ‘William’ I ‘Le Conquérant’ “King of England” de NORMANDIE (1027 – 1087)

King of England

Duke of Normandy

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Facts

Name: William the Conqueror

Birth: 1027/8
Place of Birth:  Falaise, Duchy of Normandy

Father: Robert the Magnificent
Mother: Herleva of Falaise

Spouse(s):
Matilda of Flanders

Issue:

William and his wife Matilda of Flanders had at least nine children. The birth order of the sons is clear, but no source gives the relative order of birth of the daughters.

  1. Robert was born between 1051 and 1054, died 10 February 1134. Duke of Normandy, married Sybilla of Conversano, daughter of Geoffrey, Count of Conversano.
  2. Richard was born before 1056, died around 1075.
  3. William was born between 1056 and 1060, died 2 August 1100. King of England, killed in the New Forest.
  4. Henry was born in late 1068, died 1 December 1135. King of England, married Edith of Scotland, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland. His second wife was Adeliza of Louvain.
  5. Adeliza (or Adelida, Adelaide) died before 1113, reportedly betrothed to Harold II of England, probably a nun of Saint Léger at Préaux.
  6. Cecilia (or Cecily) was born before 1066, died 1127, Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen.
  7. Matilda was born around 1061, died perhaps about 1086. Mentioned in Domesday Book as a daughter of William.
  8. Constance died 1090, married Alan IV Fergent, Duke of Brittany.
  9. Adela died 1137, married Stephen, Count of Blois.
  10. (Possibly) Agatha, the betrothed of Alfonso VI of León and Castile.

Titles:
Duke of Normandy
King of England

Death: 9 September 1087 (aged about 59)
Place of Death: Priory of Saint Gervase, Duchy of Normandy
Place of Burial:  Saint-Étienne de Caen, Normandy

House: House of Normandy

Heraldry: Blason du duché de Normandie

My Family Connection: 29th Great Grandmother

Biography

William I, (or in French; Guillaume I ‘Le Conquérant’ de NORMANDIE) was born around the year 1027/8 in Falaise, Duchy of Normandy. Most famously he is known as William the Conqueror but due to his illegitimacy he is often referred as William the Bastard. William was the son of the unmarried Robert I, Duke of Normandy and his mistress/concubine Herleva.

Legend has it that Robert saw Herleva from the roof of his castle tower. The roofs walkway looks down onto the dyeing trenches cut into the stone courtyard below, which can still be seen today. The traditional way of dyeing leather was to trample barefoot on the garments which were awash with liquid dye in these trenches. The story says that Herleva on seeing the Duke above, raised her skirts perhaps a bit more than necessary in order to attract the Duke’s eye. Her plan worked as he was immediately smitten by her. He ordered that she be brought to see him, through the backdoor as was the usual way. Herleva however refused his request and stated she would only enter the Duke’s castle on horseback and through the front gate, and not as an ordinary commoner. The Duke filled with lust, could only agree. Within a few days, Herleva, dressed in the finest her father could provide, and sitting on a white horse, rode proudly through the front gate with her head held high. This act gave Herleva an official status as Robert’s concubine. Herleva later gave birth to William and the stigma of ‘the Bastard’, forever attached to his name.

around the year 1035 Robert Duke of Normandy. Without any other heir, recognises William as his legitimate successor. He than set forth on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On leaving January 13, 1035 all the great Norman barons take an oath of loyalty to the young William. Robert died prematurely a few months later in Anatolia, William, aged seven or eight, becomes then duke under the name of William II of Normandy. But the great lords, who consider him a bastard without noble blood, challenge his power. The duchy fell into disorder and anarchy followed for several years: rebellions, struggles to obtain guardianship of the minor, murders of guardians. This period is particularly difficult for the young duke, whose life is also threatened, it forges its character and determination to take over his duchy.

A remarkable administrator at the head of a well-organised State

In 1046 during a new revolt of the Norman vassals William escaped an assassination attempt. He then decided to subdue the rebels by appealing to his suzerain the King of France, Henry I, who responds favourably to his request. Thus the young duke of 19-20 years crushes the conspiracy lords during the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes, near Caen in 1047. First battle, first victory. William the bastard manages to establish his authority over his duchy and realise the unity of Normandy. It imposes by a council in Caen the peace of God, which protects non-combatants, limits the use of weapons. And place the great feudal lords under the authority of the duke, guarantor of peace. The latter also allows the growth of trade. The Duke also develops the local administration by relying on Viscounts. Thus he succeeds in a few years in rebuilding a strong and well-managed Norman state, protected by a network of castles, controlled by faithful vassals. But the power of this great lord worries the King of France – weaker – so much so that he turns against his vassal and allies with his enemies (in 1054 and 1057).

A Norman founder of the modern English monarchy

After the recapture of his duchy, William began to seek, ensure and strengthen the security of its territory at its borders. Which brought this warrior to submit or annex neighbouring principalities. But his main conquest is made across the Channel. In January 1066, on the death of Edward the Confessor-his childless cousin-William claimed the throne of England, claiming that the deceased had designated him as his successor. The Anglo-Saxon lords choose another suitor, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex: William esteeming the legitimate heir then decides to conquer the island, at the head of a powerful army. On October 14, 1066 he won the famous Battle of Hastings: Harold II fell to his death and William was crowned King of England on December 25, under the name of William I, in Westminster Abbey in London, by the Archbishop of York-which later became a tradition of the English monarchy. But the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy rebels several times: the conquest of the kingdom is completed only a few years later. William de Normandy, became the Conqueror, and put an end to the Anglo-Saxon era: he installs a feudal system, a new Anglo-Norman aristocracy, modernises the local administration, introduces French. But it maintains the administrative structures of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, more elaborate than those of Normandy.

A leader behind the first English listing

In December 1085 William I, who wanted to know the kingdom he had conquered and its value, ordered the census of the population, property and their income. The inventory is rigorous, it recorded the number of livestock heads, the equipment, the name of the owners. Investigators are sent to the country – except in the northern and some major cities. the survey was completed in 1086, and was named the Domesday Book, or “The Book of Last Judgement” and consists of two volumes. Its purpose is to establish royal taxation, to reassess taxes and thus secure a comfortable income for the king – necessary to maintain his army and maintain his domination in England. This document of exceptional historical value is currently preserved and exhibited at the National Archives in London.

A reformer of the Church

William being a pious man participated in the Gregorian reform movement on his lands: he gathered at Lisieux in 1055 a council of the Church of Normandy, renewed the Norman episcopate and appointed reforming monks in the abbeys – freeing them from the local ecclesiastical tutelage. But the reform is nevertheless difficult to apply everywhere, resistances persist. However it is a great way to control the Church from its duchy and use it as an instrument of power. After the conquest of England, he also took over the Church, including deposing Anglo-Saxon prelates and naming Norman bishops. He then proceeded in the same way with the regular clergy: the monasteries directed by Norman abbots in turn become a relay for the royal power.

Death and Aftermath

William left England towards the end of 1086. Following his arrival back on the continent he married his daughter Constance to Alan Fergant, the Duke of Brittany, in furtherance of his policy of seeking allies against the French kings. William’s son Robert, still allied with the French king, appears to have been active in stirring up trouble, enough so that William led an expedition against the French Vexin in July 1087. While seizing Mantes, William either fell ill or was injured by the pommel of his saddle. He was taken to the priory of Saint Gervase at Rouen, where he died on 9 September 1087. Knowledge of the events preceding his death is confused because there are two different accounts. Orderic Vitalis preserves a lengthy account, but this is likely more of an account of how a king should die than of what actually happened. The other, the De Obitu Willelmi, or On the Death of William, has been shown to be a copy of two 9th-century accounts with names changed.

William left Normandy to Robert, and the custody of England was given to William’s second surviving son, also called William, on the assumption that he would become king. The youngest son, Henry, received money. After entrusting England to his second son, the elder William sent the younger William back to England on 7 or 8 September, bearing a letter to Lanfranc ordering the archbishop to aid the new king. Other bequests included gifts to the Church and money to be distributed to the poor. William also ordered that all of his prisoners be released, including his half-brother Odo.

Disorder followed William’s death; everyone who had been at his deathbed left the body at Rouen and hurried off to attend to their own affairs. Eventually, the clergy of Rouen arranged to have the body sent to Caen, where William had desired to be buried in his foundation of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes. The funeral, attended by the bishops and abbots of Normandy as well as his son Henry, was disturbed by the assertion of a citizen of Caen who alleged that his family had been illegally despoiled of the land on which the church was built. After hurried consultations, the allegation was shown to be true, and the man was compensated. A further indignity occurred when the corpse was lowered into the tomb. The corpse was too large for the space, and when attendants forced the body into the tomb it burst, spreading a disgusting odour throughout the church.

William’s grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a Latin inscription dating from the early 19th century. The tomb has been disturbed several times since 1087, the first time in 1522 when the grave was opened on orders from the papacy. The intact body was restored to the tomb at that time, but in 1562, during the French Wars of Religion, the grave was reopened and the bones scattered and lost, with the exception of one thigh bone. This lone relic was reburied in 1642 with a new marker, which was replaced 100 years later with a more elaborate monument. This tomb was again destroyed during the French Revolution but was eventually replaced with the current marker.

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