10 surprising facts about William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest

The first Norman king of England, William the Conqueror changed the course of England’s history when he invaded in 1066. Here, historian Marc Morris shares 10 lesser-known facts about William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest…

1) No one at the time called William ‘the Conqueror’

The earliest recorded use of that nickname occurs in the 1120s, and it didn’t really take off until the 13th century. At the time of his death in 1087, William was called ‘the Great’ by his admirers, and ‘the Bastard’ by his detractors; the latter a mocking reference to his illegitimate birth (he was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and his mistress Herleva).
 

2) Every major church in England was rebuilt as a result of the Norman conquest

The Anglo-Saxons were not famed for building in stone, and during the first half of the 11th century had not embraced the new architectural style, now known as ‘Romanesque’, that had become fashionable on the continent. Before 1066, the only major Romanesque church in England was Edward the Confessor’s new abbey at Westminster, still not quite finished at the time of the king’s death on 5 January that year.

Normandy, by contrast, had experienced a church-building boom during the rule of William the Conqueror, with dozens of new abbeys founded and ancient cathedrals rebuilt. After the Conquest, this revolution was extended to England, beginning with the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral from 1070. England had 15 cathedrals in the 11th-century. By the time of William’s death in 1087 nine of them had been rebuilt, and by the time of the death of his son Henry I, in 1135, so too had the remaining six. The same was true of every major abbey. It was the single greatest revolution in the history of English ecclesiastical architecture.

Canterbury Cathedral. (© Claudiodivizia/Dreamstime.com)

 

3) The Norman conquest introduced castles to Britain

Castles were a French invention – the earliest examples were built around the turn of the first millennium along the Loire valley. There were plenty in Normandy before 1066, but only a tiny handful in England, built in the previous generation by French friends of the English king, Edward the Confessor. The Norman conquest changed all that. “They built castles far and wide, oppressing the unhappy people”, wept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066.

By the time of William’s death in 1087, around 500 castles had been built across England and Wales. Most were constructed from earth and timber, but work had also begun on great stone towers in London, Colchester and Chepstow.

 

4) The battle of Hastings was fought at Battle, near Hastings

This may perhaps seem unsurprising, but it is worth emphatically re-stating, given the various alternatives that have attracted media attention in recent years.

It is generally very difficult to pinpoint the location of medieval battles with any accuracy. People often suppose that archaeology can solve the problem, but this is seldom the case. Metal rusts and wood rots, and battlefields were picked clean of valuables by scavengers and bodies were carted away to be buried in grave pits. The battle of Falkirk, fought between Edward I and William Wallace in 1298, was one of the largest engagements in medieval Britain, with almost 30,000 men on the English side alone, but not so much as a single arrowhead has ever been unearthed.

Happily, however, the case for Battle is well grounded, because William built an abbey to mark the site, which still stands today. The tradition that states he did this was not, as conspiracy theorists assert, invented by the monks of Battle in the late 12th century, but stretches right back to the time of the Conqueror himself. In its obituary of William, the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says: “on the very spot where God granted him the victory, he caused a great abbey to be built”.

 

5) More than 100,000 people died as a result of the Norman conquest

The size of the armies on both sides at Hastings is unknown, but neither is likely to have exceeded 10,000 men. Many were killed during the battle, but thousands more would die in the years that followed, as English resistance led to Norman repression. In the winter of 1069–70, after a combined English rebellion and Danish invasion, William laid waste to England north of the Humber, destroying crops and livestock so that the region could not support human life. Famine followed, and, according to a later chronicler, 100,000 people perished as a result. Modern analysis of the data in Domesday Book suggests that a drop in population of this magnitude did indeed occur.

The death of Harold at the battle of Hastings, 1066. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 

6) The Normans introduced chivalry to Britain

Savage in their warfare, William and the Normans were more civilised in their politics. Before 1066, the English political elite had routinely resorted to murdering their political rivals, as they would do again in the later Middle Ages. But for more than two centuries after the Conquest, chivalry prevailed, and political killing became taboo. “No man dared slay another, no matter what wrong he had done him”, said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its summary of the plus points of William’s reign. Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1076, was the only earl to be executed after the Norman takeover. The next execution of an earl in England occurred in 1306, some 230 years later.

 

7) William banned the English slave trade

In pre-Conquest England, at least 10 per cent of the population – and perhaps as much as 30 per cent – were slaves. Slaves were treated as human chattels, and could be sold, beaten and branded as their masters saw fit. It was a sin to kill a slave, but not a crime. The Norman Conquest hastened the demise of this system.

William banned the slave trade and in some cases freed slaves, to the extent that by the end of his reign their number had fallen by 25 per cent. By the early 12th century, slavery in England was no more. “After England had began to have Norman lords”, wrote Lawrence of Durham in the 1130s, “the English no longer suffered from outsiders that which they had suffered at their own hands; in this respect they found foreigners treated them better than they had themselves”.

 

8) William also invaded Scotland and Wales

Although he was king of England, William inherited the claim of the Anglo-Saxon kings to be overlord of the whole of the British Isles, and pursued it aggressively. When the king of Scots sheltered English rebels and sponsored the last surviving member of the Old English royal house, William responded by invading Scotland in 1072, travelling as far north as the River Tay.

Similarly, when in 1081 fighting among the various native rulers of south Wales upset the balance of power, William led an army into the region, stopping only when he reached the Irish Sea at St David’s. “Had he lived two years longer,” said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “he would have subdued Ireland by his prowess, and that without a battle”.

 

9) Both William and his queen, Matilda, were of normal height

It is still common to hear it said that William was unusually tall, and his wife, Matilda, was exceptionally short. There is no evidence to support either assertion, and plenty to contradict it. Contemporaries described William as being strong, certainly, but described his height only as “proper”. In Matilda’s case, they noted only that she was beautiful, and said nothing at all about her stature.

William and Matilda were both buried in Caen, he in the abbey of St Etienne that he had founded in 1063, she in the nunnery of Holy Trinity, founded in 1059. Their tombs were destroyed in the 16th century, so only fragments of their skeletons survive – in William’s case a single bone. In 1959 these remains were examined by French archaeologists and it was widely reported that Matilda had been a diminutive 127cm (4’2”), William a strapping 178cm (5’10”).

Widely, but not accurately. The experts in 1959 had actually concluded that Matilda was 152cm (5’) tall, making her just 5cm shorter than the average medieval adult female – a height, as the royal gynaecologist Sir Jack Dewhurst observed, far more compatible with her nine successful pregnancies. William’s single surviving thighbone, meanwhile, was re-examined in 1983 and the estimate of his height reduced to 173cm, just 2cm greater than that of the average medieval adult male.


Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror. From ‘Costume & Fashion, Volume Two, Senlac to Bosworth 1066–1485’ by Herbert Norris. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

10) William’s reign began and ended with inglorious scenes

The high point of William’s career was his coronation as king of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, but things did not go according to plan. The ceremony took place in an atmosphere of high tension, the Normans surrounded by thousands of disgruntled Englishmen from nearby London. When the congregation shouted their assent to William’s rule, the Normans on guard outside the church mistook the noise for treachery and began setting fire to the surrounding buildings, at which those inside ran out to protect their property or join in the looting.

Similar embarrassing scenes attended William’s death in 1087. He died at the priory of St Gervais near Rouen, and as soon as he was dead his attendants looted his belongings and left his body almost naked. Eventually his body was taken by boat for burial in Caen, but as he was being led through the town a fire broke out, leading to scenes of chaos. His funeral ceremony in St Stephen’s Abbey was interrupted by an irate heckler, who complained that the church had been built on his father’s property without compensation.

Finally, William’s body proved to be too fat to fit into his stone sarcophagus, and when the monks tried to force the issue his swollen bowels burst, filling the abbey with such a stench that everyone apart from the officiating clergy fled.

Marc Morris is a historian who specialises in the Middle Ages. His publications include William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin Books, 2016); King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta (Penguin Books, 2016) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013).

You can follow him on Twitter @Longshanks1307.

To listen to our podcast interview with Marc on the story and legacy of the Norman Conquest, click here.

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