William the Conqueror: hero or villain?

Was the Norman invader a great leader who ushered in a new civilised era for England – or a greedy brute who terrorised the Anglo-Saxons? Nicholas Vincent offers his interpretation of the Conqueror’s true character…
 
This article appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Story of the Normans’ bookazine
A mid-15th-century illumination depicts the Conqueror as a noble warrior-king. Y
Put at its crudest, William the Conqueror was, both literally and figuratively, ‘William the Bastard’. His modern heroic reputation results from the deliberate distortions of evidence by his contemporaries. Conquerors who control the historical record are generally feted as heroes. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, to some extent Napoleon – all commissioned memorials to prolong their fame. Those who lose such control are dismissed as megalomaniacs: Attila, Hitler, Stalin. William the Conqueror is generally placed in the first of these categories. Were it not for his iron grip over the writing of history, he might easily have been consigned to the second.
 
What we know of William comes to us from his admirers rather than his critics. From long before 1066, the writing of history in Normandy consisted of panegyrics in praise of the ruling dynasty. William and his ancestors, descended from pagan Vikings, were determined to prove the legitimacy of their rule over northern France. What emerged was the first stirring of what modern historians call ‘the Norman myth’: the idea that, having adopted Christianity, the Normans acquired a providential role in world history, destined to conquer not just in England in 1066 but also in Sicily and, after 1095, on crusade to Antioch and Jerusalem. 
 
The chief myth-makers here – the chroniclers William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers – both worked under ducal patronage. Their English or Anglo-Norman successors – most notably John of Worcester, Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury – wrote in the aftermath of 1066 to explain why William and the Normans secured so unexpected and total a victory. The most obvious explanation was that the Norman conquest was God’s punishment for England’s sins. As a result, William himself could be portrayed not as villain but as divinely appointed scourge.
 

An illumination in the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Norman Dukes) shows the Conqueror receiving the manuscript from his approved historian, William of Jumièges. (Getty)
 
A positive spin was applied even to the circumstances of William’s birth. In theory, no illegitimate son could sit on a ducal throne, let alone a royal one. Yet there is no doubt that William was illegitimate. At a time when the church demanded ever-stricter observance of the laws of marriage, William’s mother, Herleva, remained unmarried to his father, Duke Robert ‘the Magnificent’. Rumour, already circulating by the 1050s, identified Herleva as the daughter of a tanner from Falaise, associated with a trade mired in dung and the stench of the abattoir. Besieged by William in the early 1050s, the men of Alençon taunted him from the town walls, beating on pelts and furs, mocking his mother’s low birth. William’s response was characteristic. As soon as Alençon fell, those who had mocked him were deprived of their hands and feet. 
 
The events at Alençon were themselves symptomatic of a political crisis in Normandy that the chroniclers were tantalisingly reluctant to report. Duke Robert died in 1035 while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, leaving no legitimate heir. Aged only about eight, William was caught in a power struggle that took more than two decades to resolve. Normandy fissured between various factions backed by the neighbouring rulers of France, Brittany and Anjou. At least two of William’s tutors were murdered. His court became notorious as a place of conspiracy and assassination from which William had to be sheltered at night, hidden in the houses of the poor. 
 
Fatherless and raised amid paranoia, William triumphed through a combination of diplomacy and calculated terror. Acting in association with the king of France, in 1047 he defeated his rivals from western Normandy in battle at Val-ès-Dunes. The opposition was then hunted down, killed or exiled. 
 
In 1050 or 1051, to consolidate support from the north, William married Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders. William and Matilda were cousins, so their marriage was immediately condemned by the church. Acceptance came only after intense diplomatic negotiations with the papacy. 
 
In the meantime, the king of France, William’s former ally, joined with the count of Anjou to threaten Normandy’s southern frontier. Even William’s uncle, the count of Arques, joined the rebellion. Once again showing his coolness under pressure, William first seized the castle at Arques and then ensured his enemies were defeated in battle at Mortemer in 1054. A second attempted invasion in 1057 ended in victory for William at Varaville near Caen. Only from this point, in his early thirties, could William claim full mastery over Normandy. In the meantime, victory in at least three battles proclaimed him both a master tactician and a military commander peculiarly favoured by God.
 

A 14th-century family tree shows William’s descendants, including sons William II ‘Rufus’ and Henry I. (Alamy)
 

Ambitions on England

 
There followed a whirlwind of activity and aggression. Pushing south and west into Maine and Brittany, William laid the basis for his reputation as a conqueror in France. More significantly, he revived plans already devised by his father, Duke Robert, for a Norman descent upon England. 
 
The mother of England’s King Edward the Confessor was herself a Norman – William’s great-aunt Emma. Edward had been raised in exile in Normandy, returning to England in the 1030s with Norman assistance. Thereafter, following his accession in 1042, he looked to his young cousin, William of Normandy, as a potential heir. The intention was to play off William against the influence of the Godwinsons, the most powerful aristocratic dynasty in 11th-century England, into which Edward had been obliged to marry – but which he was determined to exclude from the throne. 
 
As Edward’s marriage remained childless, Norman prospects improved. In 1051, at a time when the Godwinsons were temporarily exiled, William may have been encouraged to cross to England to discuss his claims. In the early 1060s, when Harold Godwinson found himself blown off course in the English Channel and handed over to William as prisoner, the Norman duke obliged Harold to swear an oath. Harold promised that, when Edward died, William would be permitted to succeed him as king.
 
So far, and but for the relentless sycophancy of the Norman chroniclers, there was little to distinguish William from many other French warlords. Following the collapse of central government in 10th-century Francia, many such men had taken advantage of civil disorder to carve out principalities for themselves. By such means Flanders, Brittany, Anjou, Aquitaine, Blois, Champagne and Burgundy had all achieved a degree of independence. It was only his conquest of England that promoted William, canny French warlord, to the status of internationally reputed tyrant.
 
In January 1066, Edward the Confessor died. Ignoring his earlier promises to William, Harold Godwinson sought coronation as Edward’s successor. William assembled an alliance – not just of Normans but also of warriors from Flanders via Brittany to Aquitaine – prepared to hazard their fortunes. Against improbable odds, at Hastings in October 1066 this force not only defeated Harold but slaughtered a large proportion of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class. God had clearly spoken. William was God’s instrument, and England, one of the wealthiest kingdoms in Christendom, now lay at William’s disposal.
 

A scene from the Bayeux tapestry shows Harold being taken to William’s palace at Rouen, where he was obliged to swear an oath supporting the Norman’s claim to the English throne after the eventual death of King Edward the Confessor. (Bridgeman)
 

Deciding on despotism

 
Two options beckoned. Had he chosen the first, ruling through English representatives, William might have presided over a truly Anglo-Norman confederation. In much this way, earlier that century the Dane Cnut had governed England in an Anglo-Scandinavian alliance. Alternatively, through brutality and violence, the Normans might seek to displace what remained of the English aristocracy, establishing England as an offshore colony of Normandy. After a brief period of uncertainty, it was this second option that William chose. 
 
Though he was provoked by the fear of English resistance, there can be no doubt that, after 1070, William’s occupation of England developed as that of a military dictator sharing out the spoils of a defeated land. To cite a modern parallel, as with Europe after 1940, not only was England divided into zones of occupation each assigned to military governors, but native collaborators proved crucial to the continued functioning of law, administration and tax-gathering. 
 
Stopping only just short of genocide, William and his cronies not only seized land, women and treasure, but also slaughtered or hounded into exile all but a few scattered survivors of what had previously been the Anglo-Saxon ruling elite. Thousands died. A rich native culture was subordinated to the glorification of foreign conquerors and a foreign, French-speaking king.
 
Certain crimes went unforgiven even by William’s keenest supporters. His biographer, William of Poitiers, was horrified by the carnage at Hastings, the bodies unburied and the slaughter unleashed. All the chroniclers agree that William’s campaign against the north of England in the winter of 1069–70 was fought with deliberate brutality, to provoke famine and suffering. Even 20 years later, this ‘Harrying of the North’ left its scars upon the great survey known as Domesday. Domesday itself, although viewed today as one of the great symbols of Norman efficiency, was at the time considered by the English to be a shameful thing: an attempt to inventory every acre of land, every pig and cow, to satisfy William’s insatiable appetite for money and power. 
 

Lust and gluttony

 
Meanwhile, despite William’s public commitment to religion and justice, in 1076 he commanded the beheading of Earl Waltheof, one of the few remaining scions of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. At his burial place in Lincolnshire, Waltheof was venerated as a martyr. In private it was rumoured that the king abandoned himself to lust and self-indulgence. Hence the accusations of sexual overindulgence, and the suggestion that, by the end of his life, William had grown so fat that his monstrous paunch, jolting against the pommel of his saddle, brought about his death. In all of this there was awareness that, no matter how great his achievement in England, William remained unsated, addicted to continued violence against Brittany, Anjou and France. By these means, in the end, he brought about his own destruction.
 
There are hints that William was himself plagued by guilt. His magnanimity towards Harold Godwinson, whose body was promised decent burial at Waltham in Essex, and William’s foundation of Battle Abbey on the field of combat, both suggest a desire to propitiate God. So, too, does the public penance authorised in the aftermath of Hastings. For every man slain on the battlefield, the killer was to do a year’s penance fasting on bread and water. For every blow struck that might have killed, 40 days of fasting. For every blow so much as contemplated, three days. And so forth, through categories that would have left the king and his entourage owing penance of several years, perhaps of several lifetimes.
 
After his death in 1087, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – last vestige of a proud tradition of English vernacular historical writing – pleaded for mercy upon William’s soul. It nonetheless summarised his life in revealing terms. This was a king, the Chronicle alleged, “who had castles built and poor men hard oppressed”, and that “into avarice did he fall, and loved greediness above all”. Setting aside large parts of England as his own hunting reserves (or ‘forests’) he protected the game with draconian punishments so that “those who slew hart or hind should themselves be made blind”. 
 
Tyrants from Cyrus the Great to Hermann Göring have earned similar epitaphs. Few, however, have quite matched William the Bastard’s combination of greed and cruelty masquerading as divinely justified providence. Like the conquistadors in Mexico, William enslaved an entire nation to burnish his fame. Like Cromwell in Ireland, he deliberately assaulted a nation of fellow Christians. 
 
From 1066 can be traced a significant thread in England’s history. As a result of 1066, England remained a land steeped in bloodshed, its peace maintained only through menace and the threat of state-sponsored violence. It was William ‘the Bastard’ who first imposed this Norman ‘yoke’ on English shoulders. His success should remind us that whoever controls the writing of history also controls the future’s verdict on the past.  
 
Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. His books include A Brief History of Britain 1066–1485 (Robinson, 2011).
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here