Reassessing William the Conqueror

A formidable soldier and an extremely effective ruler, William the Conqueror was the driving force of the Norman conquest. Here, historian David Bates explores William’s place in history and argues that it’s time to move away from our old perceptions of his life and the 1066 Conquest…

To be asked to write about William the Conqueror is to be offered a wonderful opportunity to present some of the fruits of new research, but also to challenge some of the deeply entrenched assumptions about the man and his times.

Serious politics, with complex roots in England’s and northern Europe’s past were involved, and at the heart of everything was England’s relationship with Europe (a topical subject, of course, in 2016). When we take this broader perspective, 1066 becomes a succession crisis with Europe-wide ramifications, where we can think in terms of ‘European change’, rather than using the simplistic label ‘Norman’ to describe the changes that occurred. Indeed, we must abandon the notion that William’s conquest was the cause of these changes, and leave behind simplified notions of nationalism and national identity – while at the same time recognising that England is indeed distinctive in many ways.

After 1066, the cross-Channel empire that William’s conquest created lasted until 1204, both continuing this distinctiveness and radically changing it and England’s relationship with Europe. Because of all this, we can only reach a full understanding of William’s place in history if we locate him within a period that lasts from around 900 to around 1300.

 

Childhood

In trying to understand William’s personality at a distance of nine-and-a-half centuries, it’s important to challenge the notion that his childhood and adolescence were profoundly disturbed times and that this was the result of his ‘illegitimate’ birth. Although his parents – Robert, duke of Normandy, and Herleva – were not married, theirs was a long-term and presumably stable relationship; just like the often-romanticised relationship between Harold and Edith ‘Swan-Neck’, who were also not married. William was certainly always intended for the life of an aristocrat and was trained for that role.

There were two short periods of turbulence during his mid- and late-teens during a struggle for influence at court, out of which he was already resilient enough to emerge victorious. The survival in the literature of what are often termed ‘Victorian values’ in relation to the subject of ‘William the Bastard’ is therefore quite astonishing to me. The influences that we might identify as crucial are the early death (on pilgrimage) of a capable father and the culture of medieval warrior rulership, of which there were some formidable practitioners in northern France, such as the counts of Anjou, Fulk Nerra (count from 987 to 1040) and Geoffrey Martel (count from 1040 to 1060), to which William had to measure up. William had a strong sense of personal entitlement that sometimes translated into quite exceptional ruthlessness; the ‘Harrying of the North’, of which more later, will forever be the benchmark against which he is assessed.


William the Conqueror. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Generosity

There is a puritanical quality about William that was expressed in many ways. One of these was that, one probably false story notwithstanding, he was faithful to his wife, Matilda, and gave her a notably extensive share in his authority as king of the English and duke of the Normans. Another is that he was an extremely generous patron of churches, becoming so on a European scale after 1066; his son-in-law, stopping off at Constantinople on the First Crusade, wrote back to his wife in France that he had seen nothing as grand as the buildings and religious communities supported by William’s and Matilda’s generosity until his visit to the great imperial city.

When it comes to the exercise of power, however, it looks as if William never truly forgave anyone who opposed him, with consequences for England after 1066 that were devastating for many. Such figures are pretty common throughout history, however, and not just in the history of medieval kings.

My own work, discovering and editing unpublished charters in France, has had a significant effect on aspects of the narrative of William’s life and introduced new or neglected material into it. Evidence scarcely utilised since the 19th century can also make a significant difference. To select one example from many, a Flemish charter dating to the year 1056 shows that Guy, count of Ponthieu, Harold’s supposed captor when he landed in France in 1064 on the journey that culminated in his swearing his fateful oath to William, had met the future king before.

A second is the story of William’s prostration in 1069 before Archbishop Ealdred of York, the man who had crowned him king of the English, to beg his forgiveness for the conduct of some royal officials. This has seemingly scarcely been noticed throughout the whole of the 20th century.

In relation to the first story, the statement by the major early 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury that Harold had a secret agenda when he went to France has led to a lot of speculation in some recent publications. Conspiracy theories abound! Suffice to say that there was one man who it was in both Harold’s and William’s interests to portray as a villain. And that was Guy.

William’s capacity to attract support in 1066 for a very risky enterprise is striking. This – returning to medieval warrior rulership – must have been because he was seen as a good soldier likely to win battles, but also as someone who would distribute appropriate rewards and sustain morale by conveying a sense of legitimacy; in this scenario the dedication in June 1066, as the invasion fleet was assembling, of Matilda’s monastic foundation of La Trinité of Caen assumes great importance. As also does their handing-over during the ceremony of their approximately seven-year-old daughter Cecilia as a child oblate destined in adulthood to become a nun.


Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, c1053. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

The Harrying of the North

These qualities associated with effective warrior rulership, expressed in William’s case through a combination of rectitude and extreme violence, are evident in England after 1066. When it comes to the Harrying of the North of 1069–70, an innovative combination of environmental history and Domesday Book evidence holds the key. Land recovers rapidly from deliberate devastation, but people and the animals required to cultivate it do not. Sixteen years later, in 1086, Yorkshire still had a huge deficit of people and oxen.

Oxen, if they can be bred in sufficient numbers, are unruly animals that take around five years to grow and to be trained to pull a plough. They are also crucial to the provision of manure. What William did in Yorkshire was to systematically destroy long-term livelihoods. Yet, as always, there is scope for debate. The result brought England closer to peace and deterred invaders.

Indeed, violence against non-combatants, including women and children, was an aspect of the political and military culture of the Middle Ages. Was what William did worse than the many other examples we know about? And finally we must be aware that, earlier in 1069, a revolt in Maine, the region around the great city of Le Mans over which William had taken control in 1063, had overthrown his rule there. It must perhaps have seemed that all William had accomplished was falling apart. Yet we should be aware that the scale of the violence he employed was a source of controversy and debate among his contemporaries across Western Europe.

 

William’s kingdom

The English kingdom that William conquered has justifiably acquired the reputation of having developed into a precocious and well-organised state from the time of King Æthelstan in the middle of the 10th century onwards. But, in terms of England’s relationship with Europe, the crucial point is that the English state drew heavily on the legacy of the Carolingian Empire. In other words, while the relationship with Europe produced invasions, at this time mostly from Scandinavia, it also provided cultural resources that were central to the English kingdom’s exceptional qualities, this time from the heartlands of the Carolingian Empire in France and Germany, and of course from the papacy and great monasteries such as Fleury-sur-Loire.

This precocity also provided structures that enabled kings such as Æthelred and Cnut to raise quite extraordinary sums in taxation. But this was also a time of extensive immigration, some of it associated with conquest. Although study of this period nowadays generally rejects simplified labels such as ‘Scandinavian’ and ‘English’, it does acknowledge diversity and multiculturalism. It is also the case that it produced Cnut’s conquest of 1016, an event inextricably linked to William’s conquest, since it drove the young Edward the Confessor into exile in Normandy and northern France, eventually making William a player in the drama.


Stained glass window of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

What if…

What would have happened if Harold had won the battle of Hastings is of course unknowable. However, since Romanesque architecture and variants on the style of aristocratic residence known as the castle reached parts of Europe that were not conquered by anyone, they would surely have arrived in England; the former was already doing so with Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey and the residences of pre-1066 English aristocrats may have resembled the ring-works of the early post-Conquest period more than was once thought.

Major developments such as the growth of parish churches had begun in around 1030 and so-called planned villages were also evolving long before 1066. William’s insistence on grandeur and display did make a great difference after 1066 in ways that were very influential. But the labels ‘Norman’ and ‘English’ often do not fit. A great building such as the new Winchester cathedral was greatly influenced by the cathedral of Speyer in Germany. The surviving west front of Lincoln cathedral was modelled on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Meanwhile, a smaller building such as the Rougemont gatehouse of Exeter castle has Anglo-Saxon features; an example of cooperation between victors and defeated. And so on.

It was as if it was William’s new status as a king that made the difference, not his status as a Norman. And the sources of inspiration were not based in Normandy. It was as if recognition of a new status and human resilience created much that was new in the crucible of triumph, trauma and catastrophe. The long-term links with Normandy and territories beyond then provided the basis for evolutionary change that emphasised further influences from Europe, and especially France.

A speculative thought is that Magna Carta would not have happened if Harold had won. The tradition of royal promises to rule well did indeed have a past in England before 1066. But the circumstances that produced Magna Carta derived from King John’s loss of the cross-Channel empire created by William the Conqueror. These events would surely not have occurred if England’s kings had continued to be only England-based. England’s multi-faceted relationship with Europe is central to this. Many must have debated the pros and cons of England’s multi-faceted relationship with Europe in the period from around 900 until around 1300. Just like in 2016 – again. In the end, however, the commemoration of the 950th anniversary of 1066 must be marked by a remembrance of the thousands of unnamed victims of violence deployed by William, Harold and others in what was believed to be a legitimate cause.

David Bates is professorial fellow at the University of East Anglia. His latest book is William the Conqueror (Yale University Press, 2016).

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

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