William I

The Conqueror

1066 - 1087


William "the Bastard" was born in Falaise, Normandy c. 1026.  He was the illegitimate son of Robert, brother to Richard III Duke of Normandy, and a local tanners daughter named Herleva.  He was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, who became the first Duke of Normandy in 911.  In 1027 Richard died without an heir, making Robert the new Duke of Normandy and William the heir to the title, until a legitimate heir was born.  However, in 1035 Robert died while 

on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, making William duke at the age of nine. 


Before he departed, Robert had laid plans for William's safekeeping in the event that he didn't return, appointing friends and relatives to protect him and govern Normandy during his youth.  These men included Robert Archbishop of Rouen, Gilbert of Brionne, Alan of Brittany, and his steward Osbern.  In Norman/Viking culture, bastards were recognized and could inherit titles, but to Normandy's neighbors and vassals, paying homage to a bastard boy was beneath them.  Many rivals had their eyes on claiming the strength of Normandy, and saw William's youth and vulnerability as an opportunity to press their claim.  When Archbishop Robert died in 1037, chaos erupted across Normandy.  Magnates began building unlicensed castles across the land, which was a strict violation of the law.  In October 1040 Alan of Brittany was murdered, followed by Gilbert of Brionne a few weeks later.  The following year Osbern's throat was slit in William's bedchamber while the boy slept.  Chronicler William of Jumièges, in fear of retribution, did not list the names of the culprits, but wrote "they are the very men who now surround the duke."  "Many times," according to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, "the young duke was smuggled out of the castle at night and taken to the cottages and hiding places of the poor, to save him from discovery by traitors who sought his death."


At the age of fifteen William was knighted by the King of France Henry I, which was significant because it meant that William had come of age and could rule in his own right.  He began surrounding himself with his own loyal supporters, trusted friends such as William FitzOsbern, son of William's murdered steward, and cousins Roger de Beaumont and Roger de Montgomery.  These men would serve William loyally for the rest of their lives.  


As William's power grew, his rivals became increasingly desperate.  With their power dissolving, drastic action had to be taken.  In 1046 rebellion broke out, led by William's cousin Guy of Brionne, to overthrow the duke and claim authority of Normandy.  William was forced to flee for his life and sought help from his ally, the King of France.  Henry I came to William's aid and raised an army to put down the rebellion.  In the summer of 1047, William and

Henry met the rebel army outside the city of Caen, at a place called Val-ès-Dunes near the Orne River.  For the first time in his life, William led an army in pitched battle.  The rebel army outnumbered the duke's, but lacked the leadership and coordination of the French/Norman army.  The battle consisted mainly of cavalry charges by both sides.  Eventually the French/Norman army gained the advantage and the battle turned into a bloody rout.  The rebels turned and fled with William's army chasing at their heels, chopping them to pieces as they ran.  The rebels then arrived at the banks of the Orne River.  With nowhere else to run, many of the rebels leapt into the river, desperately trying to evade their pursuers, only to drown in the current.  Those who stayed were slaughtered by William's army.  Count Guy escaped the battle and fled back to his castle in Brionne.  After a lengthy siege of the castle, he was driven into exile.  The battle was a resounding victory for William, in which he fought fiercely and got his first taste of blood.  In the aftermath of the battle, William called for a great council in the city of Caen to reunite the disaffected Norman nobles.  At the council, mediated by King Henry, the nobles were forced to sign the Truce of God, a pact in which they pledged to remain loyal to William.  The Battle of Val-ès-Dune cemented William's power in Normandy and proved to all that he was a force to be feared.


With the rebellion quelled and his title secured, William began to feel pressure from his advisers to marry.  The recent disorder had proved the fragility of William's situation as a duke without a successor.  Until his line was secured, the threat of rebellion would always be a concern.  He reached out to his old friend and neighbor Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders about sealing their alliance with the hand of his daughter Matilda in marriage.  Baldwin was excited about the match, having desired an alliance with Normandy for years.  Matilda, however, was not impressed with the idea.  As a descendant

of both Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, as well as being related to most of the ruling families in Europe, Matilda was one of the most sought after women on the continent.  She thought that William, a bastard, was beneath her station and refused him.  Accounts differ about what happened next, but legends say that William rode to Baldwin's court, found Matilda returning from church, and violently assaulted her for the insult.  Upon hearing of the altercation, Baldwin was furious and began to prepare for war against William.  But Matilda, a strong-willed young woman who valued strength and courage in a suitor, and perhaps feeling remorse for the way she had rejected William, had a change of heart and told her father that she would marry the young duke, saying that it took great bravery to do what he had done.  

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